Updated: Dec 30, 2020
The uncertainty brought on by difficult experiences triggers fear in our brains. From an evolutionary perspective, this has helped our species survive. However, in modern times, the fear can lead to anxiety, panic, and poor decision making.
Leading in difficult times requires leaders to have high self-awareness, regulate their emotions, and monitor their reactions. A leader’s behavior in these high-stakes situations can determine the fate of their organization.
When others are trapped in negative thinking, effective leaders see possibility. When others feel hopeless, effective leaders are guided by a bigger picture. When others are anxious, effective leaders speak with calmness and clarity. When others feel isolated, effective leaders connect others.
Look to the Horizon
Leading in times of crisis requires getting to the upper deck of the ship and looking out into the distance. It’s human instinct to go into self-protection mode, but leaders must think beyond the present moment. They must anticipate the next obstacles, plan for multiple outcomes, and be prepared to lead after the crisis. They ask themselves, what will the needs of my key constituencies be next week, next month, next year? When others cling to the past, effective leaders invest in the future.
Share Your Vision and Values
A leader who has looked to the future can share a vision. A compelling vision unites team members, guides them in a common direction, and helps them see why their work matters. Leaders recognize the humanity in everyone and know that others feel a sense of purpose when they can be part of the solution. When leaders communicate guiding values it gives everyone in the organization a framework for decision making. Employees who align their decisions with organizational values can go about their work with confidence.
Communicate Early and Often
Clear, consistent, and transparent communication is important in difficult times. Some leaders prefer to wait and find out which way the wind is blowing before communicating, but waiting can have serious consequences. Customers, employees, and other important groups to the organization should receive regular updates via multiple channels. Some leaders fall into the trap of using the communication channel they prefer, but a multichannel approach helps increase the chances everyone receives the information they need. Authentically communicated messages should explain what is known and unknown. The best leaders understand their strengths; some will choose to be the voice of the organization and others will delegate the responsibility to a capable colleague.
Trust Your Team
Leaders understand they can’t solve complex issues on their own. The best leaders assemble strong response teams when the waters are calm. These teams are ready to do their work when a crisis arises. Leaders who trust those teams can focus on the most important matters and delegate the rest. These teams should be empowered to make quick choices and allocate resources. Leaders who micromanage the response disrupt the efforts of their team. Instead, leaders should set their ego aside, connect the right people, and regularly ask, “How can I help?” Effective leaders build bridges when others are building walls.
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Difficult times can leave us all feeling overwhelmed and afraid. During these times people look for others to lead with purpose. You need not be in a position of formal power to do the important work that needs to be done, to make a difference, and to serve others during difficult times.