When things are going well, leadership can be a joy. The conversation is mostly about enhancing performance, how to build people into their capacity and drive success. We see those we lead reach for their potential and grow personally and professionally.
No wonder people aspire to leadership.
But it is not always like that. There are times of crisis, tragedy and difficulty which require outstanding leadership to manage. Leadership will stop being fun, but it never stops being critically important.
In leadership programs the focus is heavily upon how an individual can be a great leader, and creating extraordinary success. Often the ‘dark side’ of leadership is either glossed over or simply ignored. It is not fun, or sexy, to lead at such times, and the importance of it is rarely reflected upon.
Sometimes the best that leadership can offer is just to help others cope, to get them through tough times. Because we don’t only need leaders to create brilliant outcomes, we need them to help us get back to normal when things have gone wrong. This can have a massive impact on the individuals and teams, as well as the future viability of the organisation. Great leadership can be measured by not only how well success is created, but also how a leader gets others through such difficult times. It is not measured by the volume of applause, or how much fun it is.
Tragedy and crisis
Leaders have to consider that an event may occur to an individual, a team or the whole organisation that they lead, which may be of significant negative impact. This can include events inside or outside the organisation that may lead to a tragedy or crisis.
Think of some common examples: A team member is diagnosed with a significant illness, or their loved ones are; Customers or staff are killed or injured; A major project is derailed and a team is to be disbanded; The organisation runs out of cash and has to lay people off; or there is a major environmental event which impacts the organisation and its people (think Fukashima as an example). Each of these things could happen to you and the people you lead at any time. The list of potential events is endless, and they can happen inside the organisation or happen to the people within your organisation from outside.
The thing they have in common is that each of these creates stress, distress, a sense of tragedy or crisis.
- If you were a ‘leader’ in any of these circumstances, how would you respond?
(Hint: Although ‘run screaming’ is an option, it is not a very valuable response at this point!)
- What have you been taught or instructed to do in such circumstances?
Poor leadership in such situations increases the distress on the people affected, increases the likelihood of events escalating into continuing crises, and often leads to significant disruption and failure. Leaders who still drive performance, don’t flex their style and ignore the reality of what is occurring (often avoiding any discussion or intervention on the topic, instead burying it and attempting to operate as if nothing happened) are being poor leaders to those they lead- who deserve something different.
The likelihood is that most leaders are spectacularly underprepared for such events and their consequences, and have to rely on their own personal competencies to get them through.
The good news is that this is a great place to start. The bad news is that we should be helping and schooling our leaders so they have the capabilities and competencies to lead successfully in such situations, and the experience to do so to make a real positive impact in the circumstances.
We need a different type of leader.
The inspirational, goal oriented leader needs to take a back seat. The empathetic, relational leader needs to step forward. It is not about the topic, but about the people and relationships. The leader that uses charisma and ‘drive’ to get the people that they are leading to achieve goals is going to appear insincere, out of touch and even insulting if they use this style when people are experiencing distress following a critical event.
The flexibility of leadership style will really come into its own here. Being able to shift gears and lead the people from where they are ‘at’ in the moment is going to pave the way for leadership success. Leaders with only one style will be caught out when a different style of leadership is called for. All of the credit and goodwill that they have developed will quickly be eroded if they miss the signals that the people that they lead are in distress, or are struggling to cope.
On the other hand, a great leader also keeps the team or business functioning so that there is something to come back to after the crisis event is resolved. Being able to focus on resolution of the distress or crisis, and yet maintain appropriate business practice requires the skill of being able to step back and compartmentalise. The application of resources and focus is critical – only focusing on the business can amplify the distress of the individuals, only focusing on the people in crisis can lead to the business suffering (potentially triggering a crisis of a different type). What can you do as a leader to keep the business running, whilst dealing with the issues that arise from the crisis event? It is a balancing act.
3 steps. Prepare, manage, communicate
Leading people in distress can be enhanced through 3 practical steps: prepare, manage and communicate.
We can prepare as a leader in three important ways:
1. We can consider potential events for individuals, teams and the organisation and develop plans for how they can be best addressed. What policies can be put in place? What processes can be invoked? How can we ensure appropriate and rapid response to potential and possible risks?
This is a key aspect of leadership governance.
2. We can prepare ourselves as leaders. By being deeply aware of our leadership style, our responsive style to crisis, our defensive profile and self-management strategies, we can prepare ourselves, as leaders, for an event where we will be called on to flex and exhibit a different range of leadership competencies. We can review practical processes that we could consider employing, and consider signs and signals that there is distress or a crisis ongoing in the organisation. This means that when such a signal emerges, we are attuned to respond to it rapidly and effectively, with an appropriate process. A great coach can help leaders take such a personal audit and develop flexibility and response strategies.
3. We can prepare our organisations, teams and organisations to be self-aware of the potential for crisis or distress, and what to do about it. We don’t want to create worry or a ridiculous culture of problem seeking, but we do want to develop an understanding and an empathy for potential issues and giving the people confidence that they have the process to support its identification and resolution, and that they will be supported for doing so. Too often, distress and crisis exists but people don’t know how to deal with it, or afraid of what will happen if they do. Preparing people so that an appropriate, rapid response is triggered makes a HUGE difference to the outcome of crisis events.
Preparation is so important, yet it is easy to forget when things are going well.
How we manage whilst crisis or distress is occurring is also critical. As a leader, you are the most visible and salient member of the group, and others will look at how you are operating to get a sense of how they should respond. In times of uncertainty and crisis, this is amplified, and you become a role model of critical values and behaviours for the group. It is so important to manage yourself first, to care for yourself appropriately and demonstrate cultural values and empathy which can be so important for the group to see, but to also model.
I worked with one executive team where, during the plunge into crisis, the ‘leaders’ used what was happening to further their own positions versus each other, looked for glory, and even deepened and prolonged the crisis to further their own purposes and aims. As you can imagine, the negative impact on all of the people involved – inside and outside the company- was immense.
Whilst many cases may not be as blatant as this, individuals are driven by their own social needs which, if left unconscious, drive their leadership behaviours, especially in times of distress. Another example was where a major crisis occurred, and the leader almost became frozen- the uncertainty of how to act (in case they were wrong) meant that they did not take the actions that were needed, nor communicate appropriately during the crisis. With some coaching and support, they were able to recognise the drivers and reframe their role in the process. Their actions and communications became exemplary and had a massive positive influence on the recovery of the people and the organisation from that event. In this case, it was not a wilful desire to sabotage recovery, but simply unconscious social drivers and a lack of personal awareness and competence at such times that was negatively impacting their leadership performance.
For the individual leader, it is about self awareness, self honesty and also self care. A leader who does not look after themselves will not be able to care for the business and the people in the same way as someone who does. Crisis can be all-consuming, and become overwhelming. Leaders need to factor in ‘me time’ or ‘me processes’ so that they can be in a position to maximise what they can give to others, and the organisation, under stress. Leaders who fail to do this often suffer severe burnout, take over responsibility and end up becoming an additional problem, rather than a valuable resource, at such times.
In the darkness- engage, empathise, experience.
If we consider the skills that a great leader shows when times are tough, it is critical for them to consider the 3 E’s: engage, empathise and experience.
Leaders need to be available (physically and emotionally) during tough times, and work hard to engage those in distress. It is easy for those in distress to actively disengage from those around them, and without great leadership, they are likely to do so. Great leaders use all the levers of connection and engagement to keep channels open, and help those that they are leading to deal with, and move beyond, the event and the distress.
Leaders need to empathise, and not sympathise. There is a significant difference between these two approaches. Sympathy emphasises ‘poor you’. Empathy emphasises ‘I recognise what you are experiencing’.
An analogy: if someone falls in a hole, empathy is understanding what has happened so you can help them out, sympathy is jumping in the hole with them. Empathy is therefore about understanding, but leaves the leader in a position to help the person or team in distress, without jumping in there with them. A sympathetic leader offers little value, and often just gets stuck in the same way as those that they lead.
Leaders need to recognise the subjective nature of experience. It is not what ‘objectively’ occurs that causes the distress, but rather how individuals and teams subjectively evaluate it. It is critical that in difficult times, leaders take the time to understand the subjective experiences of those affected, and to lead them from there. What may be a small matter for one person may be a significant life crisis for another. Being attuned to not only what someone is experiencing, but also understanding their subjective view of what they experience, a leader is in a position to empathise and lead from there.
Leadership can be about initiating, allowing and supporting difficult conversations.
In tough times, sometimes tough things need to be done or said. In such times, great leaders are prepared to tackle such topics in appropriate ways. Leadership is not only about initiating these conversations, but often about creating the space for others to have them, and to build a culture when such conversations are fully endorsed and supported.
Difficult conversations open up important topics in sensitive and appropriate ways, which often allows the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ to be spoken about and addressed. Difficult conversations allow resolution of issues and invite coaching conversations to follow, which move people forward.
In tough times, leaders need to allow these difficult conversations (sometimes which are not the ‘norm’ in good times) to occur. Leaders who do not have the skill in having them, or who are uncomfortable in these conversations often shut them down, and instead of resolving issues and helping people move forward, they keep the group stuck in their distress.
Lead forward. Sometimes small steps not big leaps
Often, getting the people to focus on the small things that they can do is a powerful way to reengage people and lead them forward. In distress and crisis, everything can appear overwhelming, and it is easy to feel stuck and that you can have nothing you can do to move you forward. Engaging people in the smallest tasks which move themselves, the team or the organisation forward can get them engaged, absorbed and moving – which can break the sense of overwhelm and get them out of focusing on the problem, and start them taking actions toward the solution. Great leaders, by understanding the way the people are subjectively experiencing an event, can get a sense of the size of task that is appropriate for the person right now. A lack of awareness, and setting overwhelming goals or tasks, may simply amplify their distress.
How you treat one is watched by all
Sometimes the simplest solution is to ‘get rid’ of someone in distress – it removes their negative impact from the group. In cases of mental illness such as depression and anxiety, a leader thinks they are doing the group a favour by moving that person on. What happens, however, is that everyone is watching. How you treat one person is the model of how they will be treated if they suffered the same circumstance. Great leaders help the individuals, and by doing so send clear messages to the group that if something happens, each person is valued and will be looked after. This builds engagement, trust and commitment in the rest of the group, and of course helps the individual.
You are not alone
In difficult times, a leader needs to know their competencies, and when things are too much for them. Knowing when to get support, from HR, and EAP provider, a psychologist or other leaders is not a sign of weakness. Unless you have specific skills, you may not be best placed to help the individual, team or organisation. A great leader gets help from experts and support personnel when needed. A great leader is not afraid to ask for help, or to seek expert advice to lessen the distress and move the individual, team or organisation forward again.
- How do you lead when times get tough?
Do you have the experience and skills to lead people in distress and crisis?
How will you respond?
About the author: Phil Owens – High Performance Specialist
From starting companies, sitting on boards, and working with leaders in 30 countries, Phil Owens of The Bigger Game gets results. His track record spans the globe, where he has led 91 countries in the developing world, set up businesses from Tehran to Shanghai and driven global sales of over 1.2 billion Euros. He has launched products around the world, revolutionised businesses in over 50 countries and saved one company over one million Euros in a weekend.
Specialising in the ‘human element’ of business, Phil’s coaching, facilitation and consulting is sought after to help organisational culture and change, strategy, marketing and sales and helping executives achieve so much more.
A successful coach, mentor, facilitator, trainer, project leader and consultant, Phil sees what must be done and helps you do it. Phil works with leaders in businesses of all sizes to help them unlock their potential and step up to their bigger games – and develop the skills and resilience to stay there.
Contact Phil when it is time to play your bigger game: firstname.lastname@example.org