We have been thrown into discomfort.
Forced, really into a time of instability. For many, the past six weeks have been both a blur and a blend. A blur where time seems to get lost, where weekdays seem indistinct from weekends, PJs have become work clothes, and Zoom fatigue is real. It’s become a blend where home is work and work is home, ‘active’ has become something you find ways to do around the house, and kids’ school days are one with parent’s workdays.
The words I’ve heard from people around the world: Overwhelmed. Uncertain. Scared. Angry. Bored. Anxious. There is so much anxiety.
But there is also: Grateful. Reconnected. Present. Slowed down. Appreciative. Contemplative.
And so we arrive at leadership. The process of helping people face adaptive challenges, done by the person who takes responsibility for recognizing the potential in people and in ideas and who will develop that potential. Within those above words: grateful, reconnected, present, contemplative, there is a potential. One that will require effective leadership.
What we need are leaders who can adopt a ‘posture of possibility’ and find a way through these tough times. Now, more than ever, we need authority we can trust. We need leaders who can envision and embolden our future, helping us move through our present. Within this posture of possibility is a belief that there is something better on the other side of where we are right now. There is a belief that in all that has been (re)exposed over the last few months- the deficits in healthcare, the inequities in our social systems, the fragility of small businesses, the importance of considering mental health, etc, we can adapt and shift in ways that move us forward. This requires leadership. What is needed is leadership defined and driven by what Seth Godin calls “real skills.” Not to be confused with ‘soft skills’ (a phrase that I hate), real skills get down to the core of what people really need and are the foundation for helping people, teams and organizations through a crisis. These real skills are what it takes to move through our most challenging times, showing up for others, for communities, and for ourselves.
If you haven’t taken the time to develop these aspects of your leadership practice, or if you feel like this isn’t at the top of your skill-set, don’t despair. I’ve outlined a few great places to start that will help you make an immediate impact on everyone in your life, from the people you lead to your family and friends.
1. Listen Deeply
This is a critical first step that will set the foundation for the other skills to come. When leaders listen deeply they hear not only what is said, but what is not said. They listen to the words and look for the emotions underneath them. This is a very emotional time, and people are holding a lot. In order to find our way through we have to understand where we are. Ask questions and be willing to hear the answer. Listen to the concerns and needs of your team, your clients, your stakeholders. Listen to yourself. What do you need right now? What are these answers telling you? Start from there.
2. Attend to Fears and Feelings
This comes right from Brené Brown and is a foundation for effective leadership. In fact, if you begin to do #1 above, you won’t escape attending to fears and feelings. Right now, we are ALL in fears and feelings. Anxieties are high and for very good reason. People are shifting their work, making adjustments to their organizations, trying to save their employees, and their businesses all while helping their kids through school and trying to find ways to connect with their aging parents who aren’t as good on Zoom. People are in a state of paradox where they can’t leave their house and have little do while having so much to do in order to get through this.
Your people need you to meet them where they are. And right now, people are full of fears and feelings. Try holding ‘cafe’ spaces with open questions that encourage connection, acknowledge the present, and allow for deep breaths. Ask: What has been the biggest shift you’ve made? What do you miss the most? What are you doing to take care of yourself? What insights to your life has this shelter-in-place given you? What possibilities do you see for your life?
3. Admit You Don’t Know
In all of our desperate yearnings for answers and clarity, we are looking for who we can trust. The challenge for leaders right now is that there are very few answers. Things are changing daily. In order to gain trust, not give false hope you must admit that you don’t have the answers. Remember, leadership isn’t about answers but about adaptive challenges and the potential in people and processes. Right now isn’t a time for answers but a time for questions. It’s not about certainty but curiosity. It’s not about the end result but about the exploration we are in to bring us to a better place.
And yes, people are wanting answers, but right now, answers are one of the last things anyone has. Instead, shift your leadership focus to listening and attending to fears and feelings. That will do a lot more for your people in the long run.
4. Be Honest When You Do Know
My daughter asked me a few weeks ago if she would get to go back to school. She is very much missing her friends. My son asked if we were still going on our family vacation this summer. He loves to travel. The answers: no, and no. Putting off the truth to avoid the hard that accompanies disappointment is not what courageous leaders do. When you have the answer, offer it with compassion and grace. There are many unmet expectations right now. Many are feeling disappointed and disheartened. Ignoring the truth of hard news is not helpful. When people know the situation they are facing they can acknowledge their sadness and work through their grief… and then, they can begin to make shifts and adjustments. From this place I could explore with the kids: how might we still see your friends even though we can’t go back to school? What is the most fun about vacation? Let’s see if we can recreate some of those moments.
Be honest. It matters.
5. Re-establish What’s Important
Life looks very different for many people. From our work, our homes, and our schools to our relationships and the way we spend our time…it’s been a ‘new normal’ for just about everyone. It’s a great time to reconnect to what is important. What priorities would best serve you right now? What actions and choices would be most helpful to move you forward? What actions and choices would best move your team or company forward?
This requires taking the time to evaluate, explore, reflect, and re-think. For example, a team that might have been working on a new product or service might now find themselves anchoring back to current services find ways to maintain those. A fitness trainer who was preparing exercises to run an upcoming marathon may now find themselves focusing instead on helping people find creative ways to get daily movement. A high school admin team may find that the expanded extracurricular activities they were previously developing have been put on pause while they establish how to assess students and assign grades in this virtual learning environment.
It could be helpful to connect to your values and see what might be available to continue your work. It also might help to explore what you would like to do and compare that to what is available for you to do. Now is the time to get creative and not limit ideas. Get clear on what is a critical need and work from there, while getting curious about opportunities that might await.
The need for ‘real skill’ leadership
In times of crisis, leadership is exposed. It becomes very clear who is effective at leadership and who has been operating with a command and control style of unawareness. Adopting a posture of possibility does not mean you are putting on rose-colored glasses and ignoring the difficult time we are in. It does mean you are finding meaningful ways to help people through this time. A posture of possibility simply means you believe there is a way through this and you are willing to help your team and your people come out on the other side. If this is your posture, the real skills of leadership will help you get there.