Training Opportunities

Manager Minute – Real leaders are forged in crisis
June 2, 2020

Alliance Work Partners, our Employee Assistance Program, references a Harvard Business Review article to offer the following advice for leadership in response to crisis. A link to the full article is at the end of this Daily News post.

Acknowledge people’s fears, then encourage resolve.
Most of us know the famous lines of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address in the midst of the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” He followed that by pointing to the nation’s strengths in meeting the crisis: “This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.”

Less than a decade later, as the United Kingdom stared down the Nazi onslaught in the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill encouraged his people to keep the faith: “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

Your job, as a leader today, is to provide both brutal honesty — a clear accounting of the challenges your locality, company, non-profit, or team faces — and credible hope that collectively you and your people have the resources needed to meet the threats you face each day: determination, solidarity, strength, shared purpose, humanity, kindness, and resilience.

Recognize that most of your employees are anxious about their health, their finances, and, in many cases, their jobs. Explain that you understand how scary things feel, but that you can work together to weather this storm.

Give people a role and purpose.
Real leaders charge individuals to act in service of the broader community. They give people jobs to do.

During the U.S. Civil War, for example, President Abraham Lincoln exhorted and ordered men of Northern states to fight; as the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., asked his followers to sit in, march, and otherwise protest racial discrimination.

In his first inaugural, FDR told his countrymen to keep their money in the banks as an important way of averting a banking crisis; later, his wife, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, encouraged American women to work in the nation’s factories, while their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons went to battle in the Second World War.

In the current crisis, leaders must act in a similar fashion — giving their followers direction and reminding them why their work matters. In organizations providing essential services, such as government agencies, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, food and healthcare equipment manufacturing plants, news outlets, scientific labs, non-profits serving the poor and many others — this raison d’etre will be immediately apparent.

But it’s still vitally important to emphasize the key role that each person involved in the operation plays. And, in other businesses, the new mission can be as simple as helping all stakeholders navigate this crisis as effectively as possible. For us at Harvard Busines School and Harvard Business Review, that means teaching and publishing lessons like these. At a Nebraska truck stop, which Karen Gettert Shoemaker’s family has run for years, she and others are focusing on keeping the truckers who provide essential goods moving across the country, offering them a welcoming pitstop on their journeys.

When in doubt about what you or your team can do during this pandemic, prioritize helping others — even in the smallest ways. When I was going through a particularly difficult period in my life, I heard a sermon by Peter Gomes, who was then minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, that reminded me of the transformative power of giving. “When in the midst of [outer] turmoil and calamity you seek the inner strength that helps you not only to endure but to overcome, do not look for what you can get,” he told his audience. “Look rather for what you have been given, and for what you can give.” When we help others, even in the smallest ways, our fear ebbs and our focus sharpens.

Emphasize experimentation and learning.
To successfully navigate crisis, strong leaders quickly get comfortable with widespread ambiguity and chaos, recognizing that they do not have a crisis playbook. Instead, they commit themselves and their followers to navigating point-to-point through the turbulence, adjusting, improvising, and re-directing as the situation changes and new information emerges. Courageous leaders also understand they will make mistakes along the way and they will have to pivot quickly as this happens, learning as they go.

Emphasize to your followers that you expect everyone — individually and as a group — to learn their way forward, to experiment with new ways of operating, to expect the occasional failure and then quickly pivot to a new tack, to figure out the future together. In fact, this crisis — including the social distancing measures it has required and the widespread economic downturn following closely in its wake — presents a powerful opportunity for organizations and teams of all kinds to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, what really engages and motivates their people, and their own reason for being.

Tend to energy and emotion — yours and theirs.
Crises take a toll on all of us. They are exhausting and can lead to burnout. For many, who lose loved ones, they are devastating. Thus, one critical function of leadership during intense turbulence is to keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s energy and emotions and respond as needed.

When tending to energy and emotion, you must begin with yourself. As a high-ranking executive commented before the pandemic, “If you as the leader flag, everything flags. Everything else, including your organization’s mission, becomes vulnerable.”

So, in these trying times, take good care of yourself, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Know when you are capable of being focused and productive, and when you need a break. Eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, spend time outdoors (six feet away from strangers), connect in person with your partner, kids, or animals and virtually with friends and extended family, plan for at least two device-free periods per day (of a minimum of 30 minutes each), and rely on other practices that help you get grounded.

Next, model the behavior you want to see. This means using your body language, words, and actions to signal we are moving forward with conviction and courage. It means regularly taking the (figurative) temperature of your team — How are they doing? How are they feeling? What do they need? — so that its members begin to do the same for each other.

Indicate that you are taking the time to rest and recharge and encourage your employees to do the same. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has told the citizens of New York, “Take a walk” and “Call Mom.” Another quick way to boost morale is by cultivating gratitude. Ask your people to list three things each day for which they feel grateful. And circle back regularly to the three points above: demonstrate resolve, emphasize role and mission, and focus on the opportunity for learning.

We — all of us — will be remembered for how we manage ourselves and others through this crisis. How will you, your team, your organization, our society connect, persevere, and progress? How will we emerge from this experience collectively stronger?


Excerpts taken from:

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