What opportunities will you seize to define your ‘new normal’ as a leader?

What opportunities will you seize to define your 'new normal' as a leader?

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There is no doubt that the legacy of every leader is being written right now as we work through this crisis. We are unlikely to ever see our leaders, and that includes ourselves, tested in this way again during our lifetimes.

We will remember those leaders who made us feel safer just as we will remember those leaders who added to our anxiety. We will remember the leaders who checked in to make sure we had everything we needed at our lowest points just as we will remember those leaders who never asked.

Every single one of us is a leader, whether a leader in our homes, our local communities, our businesses or our governments. Each day we are making decisions about how best we can choose to lead through this crisis. And every decision we make is being watched closely by those we impact.

The words of Winston Churchill are often remembered during challenging times and none more so than this particular quote from 1940 when Churchill addressed the nation –

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that...[people] will still say, 'This was their finest hour.’”

While Churchill was speaking to the entire country, implicitly he was also calling on each individual to think about their own contributions to the war effort. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, I think this quote is a reminder that, as leaders, we need to hope the people we lead look back and feel that we too showed it to be our finest hour.

Even the best leaders are self-aware enough to know there are areas where they are challenged and need to develop. Therefore all leaders have an opportunity, right now, to assess their leadership style through understanding that the ‘new normal’ will not just impact the way we work in the future but also what we expect from our leaders.

The most valued leaders around the world during this crisis have been those who have been able to lead decisively and courageously with a compassionate, ethical, emotional intelligence. Sheer intellect has not, and has never been, enough. The smartest people in the room are often not the leaders you would choose to follow into battle and this has been demonstrated in this health crisis.

It is leaders who are ethical, values based and purpose driven who are the leaders we wait to listen to each day. We trust them to have our best interests at heart whether it is in their decision making about our businesses, our schools or our communities. It is those leaders – and those leadership attributes – we will remember and call upon in the future.

It is not too late for all leaders to seize the opportunity to define what kind of leader they wish to be in the ‘new normal’. It is a time to put ego aside and to acknowledge that this is a challenging time, you have been tested beyond all previous expectations and that you are grateful for the wisdom and support of others. Ask those you lead what they need from you and then listen, really listen. Put yourself in their shoes and help them to feel safe in the new way of working as you lead them into the future.

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Leaders: What would you have done in this moment? Spoken up or stayed silent?

Leaders: What would you have done in this moment? Spoken up or stayed silent?

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For those who may have missed it, during a White House briefing this week, President Trump speculated that injecting detergent into coronavirus patients might be an effective form of treatment for COVID-19. After a barrage of negative comments from health officials, including brands like Dettol and Lysol confirming that under no circumstances should their products be ingested or injected into the body, Trump reversed his comments and claimed he was being “sarcastic”.

In the White House Briefing Room with President Trump that day was Dr Deborah Birx, a highly respected and accomplished physician who specialises in immunology, vaccine research and global health. Birx is no stranger to working in a political environment having worked for three Presidents during her career including her appointment by President Obama to lead the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief and more recently an appointment by President Trump to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The footage of Dr Birx’s reaction to President Trump’s comments immediately went viral. Birx did not correct Trump but remained silent during the awkward exchange. Birx’s body language is revealing as you see her avert her gaze, stiffen in her chair, rapidly blink and take a number of deep breaths. You could be forgiven for thinking she appears completely dumbstruck by what she hears Trump suggest.

What do you think you would have done in Dr Birx’s shoes?

Missed opportunity to lead

Putting politics aside, I believe we can all find empathy for Birx during these few moments. Birx’s entire career has been in the medical profession seeking to find cures to communicable diseases and enhance public health. She would have known, clearly, the consequences of what the President was suggesting. I am sure if any of us were in Birx’s shoes we would have wanted to be anywhere, but there, in that moment, especially as he looked to her to confirm his views.

Despite the extremely challenging situation, it is also clear what needed to be said by Birx in that moment.

Birx needed to summon all the courage she could to correct the President when he called on her. She needed to say, respectfully, something to the effect of “No, Mr President. What are you suggesting is not correct and will cause significant health consequences.” As an individual, this was an opportunity to demonstrate authentic, courageous leadership. As a physician and leader in the response to COVID-19 in the United States, this was an opportunity demonstrate leadership on behalf of the scientific community and health workers putting their own lives at risk to keep people safe.

It would have been completely understandable for Birx to spend those few moments weighing up the personal consequences that might flow from speaking up and questioning the President so publicly. There would have been an ingrained deference to her leader (compounded by the fact he is the President) as well as a genuine fear of losing her job and the very real risk of public humiliation. It was an understandable, human response to remain quiet in that moment.

Yet leadership is about seizing these kinds of opportunities to be courageous and to truly lead. To stand up for what you know to be right even in the face of personal consequences and immense discomfort. Leaders legacies are made in the tough moments when everyone wishes they were not you.

This was Dr Birx’s moment.

On a broader level, Birx had the opportunity to represent and lead the scientific community. Birx holds a position of significant influence and importance in the American fight against COVID-19. The decisions she makes can save lives.

In a letter to the Editor published in the medical journal Nature (coincidentally only two days before this incident) by University of Cambridge academic Patricia Andrews Fearon and others, the following clarion call is made to all members of the scientific community –

We urge the scientific community to seize the opportunity to build trust ... Now, more than ever, we must show our commitment to humility, honesty and the public good.

This was Dr Birx’s moment to do just that.

While we may all like to imagine how we would have bravely spoken up if we were in Birx’s shoes, the reality is very few of us would. In her book The Fearless Organisation, Amy C. Edmondson reports that in one research study 85% of employees reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue to be important. We should therefore not be surprised that Birx remained silent.

Yet this is also precisely why, as leaders ourselves, we must ensure our workplaces are psychologically safe environments where people are encouraged to speak up.

My hope for all of us as leaders is that when our moment comes and we find ourselves in a challenging situation like this, we find the courage to step up and lead. Those we lead are relying on us to show the way.

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Leaders: You need to decide. Quickly.

Leaders: You need to decide. Quickly.

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Leading your teams decisively while also demonstrating high levels of emotional intelligence has, quite frankly, never been more important. Not only that but many leaders now need to lead in this way remotely, making decisions very quickly and with no real idea of when this crisis will end.

Rapid decision making

While I talk a lot about leaders needing to be emotionally intelligent, in a crisis that does not mean needing to talking issues through, seeking consensus and making measured decisions with all the information to hand. That is simply not possible during a rapidly changing crisis where your team members may be feeling anxious, isolated from their colleagues and looking to you for direction.

Emotionally intelligent leaders can assess which decisions need to be made immediately and will be confident to make those decisions without all the information or data.

For decades, leaders have been taught that decision making requires moving through some of the classic stages of change – gaining buy-in, building a guiding coalition, sharing a vision for the future etc. In a crisis, these steps need to occur simultaneously and immediately. Leaders who communicate well can often do this through being transparent around the reasons for their decision, explaining what they hope will be achieved by it and then once the decision is made, listening to feedback on any adjustments that might be needed.

Leaders simply cannot wait for more information right now. In many cases, that information may not be forthcoming for some time, if at all, and your team leaders are looking to you to confidently lead them forward. Some of the best leaders in the world make decisions confidently, quickly and courageously and they do so with empathy, self-awareness and transparency.

Now is the time for leaders to put ego aside and lead with authenticity, humility and vulnerability. Trust that those you lead will value and respect you for that and in turn, trust you even more.

I have been calling for courageous leadership during this crisis so it seemed an appropriate time to pluck up the courage to do my first video for LinkedIn. In the quick video below, I talk about leading change during the current crisis and how it requires bold, courageous leadership with a massive dose of transparency and emotional intelligence. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you are handling having to make rapid decisions when perhaps in the past you may have been more measured. What is working best for you?
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Leaders: It’s time to step up. Right now.

Leaders: It's time to step up. Right now.

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For the first time in living memory we face a crisis of the sort we have never experienced before. Every conversation focuses on the impact of COVID-19. Every visit to the local supermarket serves as a reminder of the fear people feel. Every headline features a new, frequently shocking, development.

Amongst this there seems to be an inability amongst many, not just in Australia but around the world, to understand that being prepared to lead with extreme transparency and fearless honesty will actually reduce panic, not increase it. Courageous leadership increases trust at a time when trust and confidence amongst those being led is critical.

Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranked United States military prisoner-of-war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War said it well,

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.

There is an urgent need for all leaders to share the brutal facts of the current crisis. People already understand that tragically, people will continue to lose their lives as a result of COVID-19. People already understand that our daily lives will change for the foreseeable future. People understand that there will be jobs that are lost or businesses that may not survive.

Even during the best of times, we need highly emotionally intelligent leaders who are self-aware of the impact their words and actions have on others. However, these skills are even more critical during times of crisis. We need our leaders to share the brutal facts fearlessly while also communicating a confidence that we will endure and we will succeed.

Telling people to stay calm is counterproductive – it increases panic and decreases trust. While a call for calm might work in some leadership situations, it does not work when those you lead see the impact of a crisis with their own eyes and are looking for their leaders to confirm their concerns, not minimise them and then provide a clear path forward.

We need all leaders to lead courageously, authentically and honestly. To have empathy for those they lead and understand the panic people feel is real. We need our leaders to listen to the experts – really listen – and then act on their advice.

We need leaders to urgently issue clear, easy to follow plans to help the people they lead work through this crisis. Those plans need to be communicated widely and then communicated again. And again. This is a time for frequent, honest communication and frankly, as much of it as possible.

These comments are not aimed at any particular leader. We all need to accept we are leaders in our families, communities and businesses regardless of our formal job title. We all have a role to play in leading our way through this crisis with acceptance of the facts and a sureness that we will succeed.

I have lived and breathed “leadership” my whole life, both as a leader myself for almost thirty years and having completed a PhD in the field. I speak about leadership around the world, mentor and advise other leaders and I write about leadership. I have found myself leading people amidst crises where the desire to be fearlessly transparent is not only difficult, but sometimes impossible, to do in practice.

So I can say with absolute confidence that the COVID-19 crisis is the kind of situation every leader thinks about as a possibility but in reality, rarely experiences. These are not usual times.

Leaders, it is time to step up. Right now.

This is what all those years of leading through the good times has been for. The legacy you leave now is the one for which you will be remembered.

Leaders please also remember that having the intellect to be in the position you are is one thing. But far more important right now is having the emotional intelligence to truly understand what you need to say and when.

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