Real Leaders

4 Traits People Seek From Leaders During Difficult Times

Global financial crisis due to coronavirus pandemic

As a leader, one of your most important tasks is to create the conditions for employees to do their best work – to think bigger, to make better decisions and to take the braver actions required to adapt and thrive in an ever changing world

In the midst of disruption and crisis, when fear can highjack bold thinking and undermine decision-making, this grows both more challenging and critical.

As the light at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic tunnel grows brighter, leaders need to ask themselves what else they can be doing to bring out the best in those they’re charged to lead?

A good place to start is by looking backward; examining past crises for the traits people sought out, and valued most, in their leaders. Fortunately, Gallup Organization has done that. They studied the fears, concerns, and confidence of citizens from across the world through many of the biggest crises of the past 80 years — including the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and World War II, Kennedy’s assassination, civil unrest in the 1960s, 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic.

As they did, one thing became clear. In the midst of a crisis, people look to leaders to allay their fears and bolster their confidence; to reassure them that they’ll be okay, even if things will be rough in the short term.  Gallup’s study distilled the leadership attributes people are seeking into four core universal needs

Trust: Be predictable in an unpredictable time

When so many factors lay outside a leader’s control, people want to trust that leaders are at least in control of themselves. Sure much is uncertain, but at least they can be certain that their leader will do the best thing for the long-term interest of the enterprise itself (and not just their self-interest).

Being able to count on behavioral predictability is a lynchpin to sustaining this trust. Leaders who are inconsistent in their decision-making or are prone to being reactive under pressure only stoke anxiety in their ranks. No one does their best work when they’re anxious about what might happen next.

 Where can you be more consistent and predictable between your values and actions?  

Compassion: Show you care about what they care about

The adage that people don’t care what you know until they know how much you care is never truer than in crisis.  When people feel apprehensive about the future, demonstrating that you genuinely care about what they care about will help them care more about what you care about also.

On the flip side, if people perceive their leader doesn’t really care much about them personally, there’s little chance they’ll be fully engaged in their work, much less be willing to go the extra mile when it might matter most. It’s why research has found that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.  

When leading change, you must be deeply connected to the emotional landscape of those in your ranks. This is rarely comfortable work. At times, it can require immense vulnerability. Yet connecting with both head and heart lays at the heart of real leadership.  

Are you regularly conveying to team members – through your words and small daily actions – that you truly care about what they care about?

Stability: Ensure people know where to focus and why 

We are wired for certainty. So when people feel their future is under threat, they crave regular assurances and clear directions to avoid overwhelm and reset shifting priorities. For remote teams who aren’t benefiting from the regular touchpoints in a physical office, it’s even more vital to ensure they’re clear about what ‘success’ should look like. 

Gallup research found that only 39% of U.S. employees ‘strongly agree’ their employer communicated a clear plan of action at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. So it is better to risk over-communicating – using multiple mediums and touchpoints – than to risk under-communicating. Unless people are clear about what leadership is thinking, doing, and why, the communication vacuum will be filled with catastrophizing worst-case scenarios and rumors running wild. 

As you communicate your vision and strategy, expand the context for those on the front line so they can see a higher purpose for their ‘daily toil’.  People want to find meaning in hardships, to know that their sacrifices and ‘hard yards’ are contributing to a noble cause.  

Link what you’re asking of them to what lays at stake, using accessible language they can adopt in their own conversations. Make it easy for them to answer for themselves ‘For the sake of what am I doing this?’ Doing activates the ‘rally effect’, getting everyone pulling together, and guarding against myopic thinking and tunnel vision.

Is every single person in your team is clear about your plans, priorities, and the larger vision you want them pulling toward? If not, how else can you communicate with them?

Hope: Fuel optimism for a future worth working toward  

Emotions drive behavior, not logic. In difficult times, hope is precious capital. Employees who feel hopeful ad optimistic are more creative, courageous, agile, and resilient. So as you share plans and progress, express your firm belief that the goals you’ve set are doable and that the vision you’re rallying people behind is achievable.

Hope doesn’t deny hard realities. It is not Pollyanna optimism. Rather it’s being able to confront the brutal reality of a situation while also keeping faith that you will ultimately prevail, and better days lay ahead.  To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, may how you lead ‘reflect your hopes, not your fears.’

Does your demeanor speak optimism? Do your conversations fuel a sense of hope for the future?  

By spreading ‘positive emotional contagion’ – fueling trust, compassion, stability and hope – real leaders can unlock the potential that fear so often holds dormant. Only then can you fully seize the diverse opportunities of this turbulent time, leading all around you to higher ground.

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