What constitutes good leadership in a time of crisis? This is a question I ponder on continually these days. When countries are either locking in or shutting out people, subjectively, collectively, selectively. Irrespective of their politics, their culture, their histories, they are responding in unsurprisingly similar ways. Ours first, then the rest! Companies are following similar tracks, in a global connected world, where locations don’t matter but geographies seem to, where protocols for business continuity are similar but practicalities are localized, and people everywhere matter. And when people matter leadership has to matter too!
If we look at designated leaders in our immediate vicinity, which is something all of us do as a default, especially in tough times, one thing that immediately stands out is PRESENCE- just being present. The other, is CLARITY and/or CONSISTENCY in the messaging. Why is Presence important? Look to the Pope, he knows something about Presence in times like these: last week he was (physically) Present to wave and bless his followers from a window in the Vatican after delivering his Sunday services over video. This week he got Italian authorities to keep churches open even as they shut other public spaces. He recognizes that Presence—in this case of God, for believers—is as important as precautionary and preventive measures, especially for those who come into churches (and temples) despite the advisories.
Interestingly, Presence is just as important for leaders as it is for followers, and this is again something the Pope alluded to, to explain his compelling need to go to that window overlooking St Peter’s Square to wave to his flock after his Sunday sermon was broadcast on giant video screens rather than in person. For it reinforces the bonds and the commitments of the relationship between the leader and his followers and gives solace to both.
Similarly, when there is confusion, ambiguity and anxiety all around you, you tend to appreciate CLARITY and consistency and when it comes from someone you look up to, it is doubly reassuring. The most effective way of achieving both presence and clarity in organizations is via direct Communication. For this, the leader must step up, out and upfront. Why? Because in this case, what the leader is saying and what people need to understand must be the same. Much depends on this.
Isn’t this usually the case, you may ask? The answer is NO—what people hear or see (and then understand) depends on specific filters of identity, character and experience. A cynic would say, people see (or hear) what suits them. So, like many other things in leadership, the leader cannot do this messaging singularly. He needs a linked chain of leaders and managers at every level of the organization re-enforcing the exact same message, with the necessary packaging appropriate for their teams, locations and situations.
One way this can happen organically is when these leaders understand not just the message but the ethos underlying it (many leaders will signpost this for their audience in many ways during communication), and then keep to the basic message, simply and clearly. Using the exact same words as in the initial message is an easy way to do this and resisting the temptation to embellish is always sensible. This is very much in the hands of those of us who are transmitting the core message.
The other important link in this leadership communication chain is accountability and ownership and that depends on individual managers, team leaders, and ultimately each employee across the organization. Employees being able and willing to take ownership often sits within the DNA of an organization, its organizational culture. Of course, top leadership impacts and drives this by their words and deeds but equally each of us contributes to building, shaping, transforming and sustaining the organizational culture we are part of. So, we each have a role to play, an impact to make, a change to shape.
Unusual times, pandemic times, call for unusual measures and provide unusual opportunities. This is the time to step up, step forward and be counted for doing something meaningful, something out of ordinary, something generous, something humane, or to support others who are taking the first steps towards tomorrow. So wherever in the organizational hierarchy we stand, we have the choice to take ownership and be accountable, social distancing notwithstanding. In pandemic times each of us can be a leader.