In February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State for Defence, said something that is now a common saying: ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’
The current COVID19 situation is just that: an unknown unknown.
So it’s OK feel anxious or overwhelmed, because that’s what most people are probably feeling. We might be drifting – too soon for some – into some kind of new normal as it’s been called. But you’d be forgiven for still feeling like a prisoner, even if you can now walk around, shop and get down to the entertaining business of deciding what might be meant by a bubble.
I’m a coach, so it’s not my business to try and define the confusing ‘rules’ that are making our heads spin. But it is my business to help you navigate through the mess that COVID19 has created, to help leaders do what they’re supposed to do: lead their teams confidently, without fear and confusion, towards what lies beyond the new normal.
So now is the time to think about how you can do that and how you can even be a better leader and a different leader, because what’s happening is asking you to draw on different strengths, strengths that you may not be aware of.
The question you should be asking yourself is this:
We often say that leaders are emotional barometers and people, your people – colleagues, managers, as well as family and friends – will be looking up to you for cues. After all, you’re a leader, right? As leaders we are on stage, and people are watching us. If we appear to be stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, people will pick up on that, so we have the responsibility to lead differently.
Two values stand out for me right now. The first one is calm. The second one is optimism.
When I think about calm and calmness, I think about serenity, because there is nothing you can do about it, it’s happening. You have to accept it. And you have to some extent to make the most of it. And making the most of it is giving you an opportunity to rethink how you are as a leader.
Optimism is really important. There will be a new beginning. And it’s important to communicate that to our people. Not a blind gung-ho, devil-may-care optimism, but a measured sense of how COVID19 is affecting us, and that means everyone, not just our people, but people more generally.
So the question is: who do you want to be as a leader? Because the leadership skills that you might have been demonstrating might not be the ones that you need right now. What we want to be and what people are expecting us to be because of their current and evolving needs might be very different.
The best leaders run organizations effectively because they’re able to strategize, prioritize, build relationships, influence others, and most importantly, they make things happen.
But if you ask their followers, those who look up to them, what they need from their leaders, it’s slightly different.
Gallup did a survey on how people react when there is a crisis. The survey highlighted four basic needs from the followers: trust, compassion, stability and hope.
So when you ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be and how you want to lead differently, you have to think about your people’s needs when there is a crisis.
Trust. People need to see that leaders do what they say they are going to do, what psychologists refer to as a behavioral predictability. Your people don’t want to be surprised, they want to be reassured. You have the strategy, you’ve set the vision, you’ve built relationships, you’ve got ways of influencing people and you’re making things happen.
Because of the habits that you’ve built with regard to all of this, your people can predict how you are going to be responding. Behaving differently potentially creates a misalignment. So when you think about who you want to be as a leader, you need to think about the alignment that you want to have with people. You need to find the balance between the safety of predictability and the danger of change for your people.
A Gallup poll of more than 30 million people makes it clear that people want their line manager to care about them as individuals; they need to see it, they need to experience it. How can you demonstrate that you care about people?
It wasn’t that difficult with open plan offices, cafeterias, landing zones; but what will happen when remote working becomes the new normal? Arguably, it’s fine for one-to-ones.
But would you still feel the same need to arrange meeting zones, like online forums, for large teams? How can you read people when the all you see is a face staring at you with the Zoom mute button on and just emoticons to signal human interaction? Are you going to make space in your diary for virtual drop-ins?
Stability. This is about consistency and job security after furlough and massive economic hits. How can you reassure people, give them stability in unstable times? People are not just worried but fearful of losing their jobs. They need to know if the organization has a future, they want to know if there is a clear roadmap.
Stability, compassion and trust, create hope, the last of the four basic needs. Hope isn’t about a systematic problem-solving approach, where you’re putting out the fire, where you are reacting to a challenge.
Hope can also come from senior leader. It can be very proactive. It can be innovative. As a leader you have an opportunity to think differently to grow, to learn, and to be innovative. This is giving hope to the people that are working with you.
Making a real difference in someone’s life takes time and takes patience. I was reading a Gallup article which said that the average duration of the relationship with the most influential leader is 10 years, which is a long time.
So who you want to be in this testing time will ultimately shape the lasting influence that you have on your colleagues.
Right now you have an opportunity to role model the change you want to see to become a better leader.