Leading in Times of Massive Change
From the COVID-19 health crisis, which sparked a severe recession, to coast-to-coast protests, our nation is experiencing massive change. The change is occurring on an individual and collective basis. You cannot be a brand or campaign and not address the issues happening in our neighborhoods and in loved ones’ neighborhoods and still be perceived as relevant or engaged. During such unpredictable and unsettling times, more and more people are looking for strong leadership. They are looking to lead in areas where they have knowledge and passion, and they are looking to others to do the same. As someone charged with leading others, there are four things critical to your success over the ensuing months.
Say Something. When situations take us off guard, there is a tendency to want to pause, gather facts and then respond. But the pace at which one responds is telling. While due diligence is always warranted, silence during times of crisis is not advisable. As you gather information and learn where fault lines lie, be sure to communicate to your team and others. Do not allow people to assume they know where you are or what you stand for. Do not allow others to fill in the gaps and guess what your plan is. Say something. Even if you are statement is “We are gathering information and are committed to giving you a full response,” communicate. This acknowledges that there is a problem and communicates that you will follow up with a more detailed plan.
Offer Perspective. Challenging situations can be disarming. For many people, it is easy for one’s goals and plan to be thrown off when the world erupts into chaos. In times such as these, perspective is critical. Personally, I can only relax after I understand why something is happening. Once I understand how a situation came to be, it is easier to develop a plan of action for resolving such situations. For instance, when a person uncovers a health challenge, part of going to the doctor is understanding how to treat or solve the health issue. With this information, one can begin taking steps that may ultimately make a bad situation worse. The key is to put the current challenge in context and help people understand why it is happening and possible steps for resolving it.
Seek Information. Let’s face it—there are many things that occur in life that take us completely off guard. There are many things for which we have absolutely no knowledge. For many people, nationwide protests over fatal police shootings of Black Americans was a surprise. But if you speak to directly impacted people or people who have been living in fear of interactions with police, perhaps they have insight into not only why people are protesting but why they are calling for specific remedies. In another example, when COVID-19 began ravaging communities, people outside of the medical world—and some people in it—were dumbfounded. They were alarmed by both the pace of infections and the deadly nature of the novel coronavirus. It has been imperative for medical workers and hospital workers to gather as much information and wisdom as possible but to do so from people who had experience treating infectious diseases. One cannot lead through an issue without seeking wisdom and seeking it from people who have direct experience with the challenge. Leaders pondering what steps to take, when to take them and even who to engage must go on a fact-finding mission. Most importantly, they must engage with people closest to the pain or most closely impacted by an issue.
To be effective, one must have a diverse network. If everyone around you looks like you and has the same experience as you, they may not be able to speak to situations that they have not experienced. Diversity was always important, but it is critical in times like these. We simply cannot lead where we cannot see. Diversity ensures myriad insight and counsel.
Make People Feel Safe—or as Safe as Possible. In times of crisis, people look for safety. Safety is a core human need. And in times of crisis, people look for it. One of the most important things leaders can do is to promote a sense of safety. To do this, they must have already taken the steps outlined above. They must have a plan on how to move beyond the crisis or challenge. But we simply cannot focus on anything else until our innate need to be safe is met. Once there is physical and psychological safety, people have more tolerance to move through challenges.
In closing, context is everything. Chief executives and other leaders must operate by understanding what is happening contextually around them. Because we are living through multiple crises, the leadership style and leadership focus that may have worked a year ago may not be appropriate for today. Part of leadership is understanding this and adapting accordingly.