Your Finest Hour: Leading Wisely in Challenging Times

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By Jay Forte, MBA, CPC, CGC, ELI-MP

When you’re the leader, the focus is always on you. People watch your every move, ready to judge what you decide to do and how you do it, regardless of the situation at hand. This holds especially true in challenging times because there is more at stake.  

Consider how some well-known organizations responded to challenging times. Some of the responses ruined careers because the careless, self-centered, or reactive comments created a negative impact in the minds and hearts of employees and customers. When this happens, organizations struggle to recover, and often never do. 

Then there are those leaders who exhibit the behaviors that connect with their people, earn their respect and loyalty. They possess an awareness and wisdom in how to be responsive (versus reactive) to any situation, regardless of the severity of that situation. 

Consider your performance as a leader in these critical four areas to ensure you’re leading in a way that builds respect and earns life-time loyalty from employees and stakeholders with your organization.  

1. Be self-aware and self-managed. The leader is required to wisely and intentionally review all situations to assess the best outcome, taking many factors into account. This requires first that a leader be self-aware and self-managed to be able to be present enough to then gather information, assess, and mindfully decide how to proceed. We call these mindful leaders. An ideal metaphor for the mindful leader is that of a diver on a diving platform. Before diving, the diver stands quiet, present and tuned in. In that moment, they gather information about themself (energy, emotions, abilities), information about the environment (conditions, challenges) and then mindfully and intentionally decides what to do – and executes. It is responsive, intentional and deliberate – not reactive. 

To be as present as the diver, a leader must be aware of their strengths, talents and values, as well as their liabilities, blind spots and triggers. Awareness of these creates the ability to manage them to be able to be present to the situation – its challenges, opportunities and solutions – instead of reacting emotionally. 

It is in the challenging moments when you see who a leader truly is as a person. This is ultimately what activates or diminishes loyalty. When the leader makes decisions that don’t take into account the people affected by the organization, it can ruin a leader’s career and legacy, as well as challenge the organization’s ability to survive. It doesn’t matter if the right decision was made; people are watching the way you make and implement that decision – listening generously, reviewing cautiously, sharing wisely and making sound decisions. This behavior will determine those who will stay with you through any situation, and those who will bail.

Action: Work with a mindfulness coach or mentor to develop a clear inventory of abilities. Know your strengths and values. Know your liabilities, blind spots and triggers. Learn how to take a breath, get clear and proceed methodically in all situations that require your greatest thinking, leadership and guidance. 

2. Gather and share accurate information. In a world of both over- and under-communication, it is the leader’s responsibility to know the accurate information sources, use them wisely and share important information in a timely fashion with their teams. Think how you feel sitting on an airplane, waiting at the gate to take off and see it’s getting later and later but you have no information from the captain or the crew. You feel helpless because you are uniformed. Keeping people in the dark is a great way to ruin a reputation, just as is sharing information that has not been accurately vetted. Great leaders gather accurate information and build communication protocols within the organization to share the important information. All employees and stakeholders are communicated with in a way that matters. Difficult or complicated news is explained. Information, and the impact of the information, is explained. Employees and stakeholders have the ability to ask questions. Stay ahead of the messaging. Be proactive. This helps to eliminate the rumor mill and the fake news that gets created in an information vacuum. 

Action: Define and use accurate information sources. Discuss the information with the senior team. Decide how to share the information across the organization and with its stakeholders accurately, timely and pervasively. Be aware of the impact of the information you are sharing on those receiving it so you can wisely, calmly and professionally address the responses to the information.  

3. Keep your employees and stakeholders safe. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shares that when employees are concerned about their basic (physiological) needs and safety/security (safety) needs, they are unable to focus on much else. In any challenging or crisis situation, employees and stakeholders will become fearful and anxious, concerned about their ability to survive and be safe, without proper guidance, information, and support. They can’t consider advancing their performance when these needs are unattended. It is critical for leadership to know this and address it calmly and intentionally. 

Once levels 1 and 2 of the Hierarchy of Needs are addressed, then focus on the third level:– Belongingness. In times of challenge or crisis, we all look to be more connected to others. Again, this is critical for leaders to be aware of to help unify and support everyone on the team, and to activate the human response to care for and support others. 

It is important that leadership help their teams take a step back, get secure, safe, refocused and unified, to come back sound, strong and able to focus on achievement. Too much of a focus on achievement at the expense of the lower levels of the Hierarchy will alienate employees and stakeholders, and encourage their lack of support for leadership. 

Action: Be aware of what employees and stakeholders are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Identify what basic needs are challenged and create a meaningful and timely response. Identify what safety and security needs to be in place to help those you interact with feel secure, valued, and cared for. How you approach this moment will be what they remember for years following the event. 

4. Rethink your strategy and operations based on the circumstances. Strategies are not meant to be static; they are meant to be flexible and responsive to accommodate the circumstances of the day. As a mindful leader, you’re able to be fully present to the situation, particularly in times of crisis, which means you are better able to wisely gather enough of the right information to sort through the options to guide the organization toward the best outcomes. Being fully present to oneself and the situation creates a calm and more responsive leader, able to look past the reactions, fears and anxiety of the moment and instead wisely assess and evaluate options. From this place, the options for moving forward are greater and are likely to be more effective.

Remember that reactions (instead of responses) rarely create optimal results. Requiring the executive team to be present and mindful (requiring all to work with a coach or mentor to be more self-aware and self-managed) as they review the consequences and impact of any crisis encourages a more thoughtful and intentional response, short and long-term, to guide the organization through the crisis. 

Action: Quickly move behind closed doors as a team. Take some time to fully understand the situation, staying away from any knee-jerk reactions or solutions. Being responsive doesn’t require great amounts of time. It does, however, require interrupting the habit of reacting. Now with more complete information, focus first on the impact on the employees and customers. Assess the options and record ideas. Rank them in effectiveness and ability to be implemented. Then, focus on the organization and its operations, connection with suppliers/services, profitability and performance goals. Record all ideas on helping the organization survive or thrive in the circumstances. Rank them in effectiveness. Review all ideas together assessing the short and long-term impacts of any decision. Decide as an executive team on the way forward. Define how it will be communicated within and out of the organization. Provide a unified perspective. Continually review and assess the impact of your decisions as information is shared and reassess as necessary.

Who we really are shows up in the crisis moments. This is where everything we know needs to come front-and-center. Do we take the time to be fully present to ourselves to quiet the anxiety and fears that come with change so we can mindfully gather, review, and understand the situation? Do we expect and require the same behaviors of everyone on our executive teams? Do we understand what our employees, customers and those we are in relationships with are experiencing – what they are concerned with, fearful of and struggling with? Do we understand any danger in the crisis and have a plan to protect our employees and stakeholders? Do we have a plan to review our organizational goals and revise as needed to respond to the crisis in the best way possible? Do we share a unified and consistent perspective in all we do so that our employees and stakeholder trust our judgment and direction?

In a moment of crisis, mindful responses set the leaders apart and build lifetime followers. 

As President and Founder of The Forte Factor and certified executive coach, Jay Forte speaks to thousands of CEOs and Talent Management / HR professionals each year, introducing them to practical approaches to hiring, engaging, managing, developing and leveraging talent. He helps organizations build high-performing teams through his coaching, educating, and consulting. He is the author of Fire Up Your Employees and Smoke Your Competition, and The Greatness Zone – Know Yourself, Find Your Fit, Transform the World. You can learn more about him and his services at www.thefortefactor.com

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