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.