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Return to Calm
The unexpected happens, how we maintain a sense of calm when all around seems to be in chaos shows our true character. At a time when there has been so much uncertainty, so many opinions, conflicting views, shifting landscapes and changing narratives that it has left many feeling drained, confused and looking for guidance, we need leaders who will return us to calm. Successful leaders know how to eliminate the noise, return to a central equilibrium and focus on what matters. Leaders who are able to bring those they lead to an environment of calm will be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves as we emerge from this pandemic.
In times of uncertainty we look to our leaders for direction. How they react to changing circumstances and obstacles sets the tone for others to follow. Whilst reputations precede us and shape how others look at us, our character is what emerges in times of turmoil and places our strengths and weaknesses clearly on display for all to see. When these moments arrive you see the true colours of those that lead, as the pressure mounts and the uncertainty increases do they remain calm and steady the ship or do they scramble and fuel a sense of panic and uncertainty. The latter creates a level of anxiety that can ripple across an organisation and intensify as it spreads, destabilising an already tilting ship.
I found that the most successful leaders approach uncertainty with a level of acceptance which seems to settle the nerves of those they lead and instils confidence that the challenge presented is not insurmountable. They tend to shift the language from we are presented with a problem, to we are presented with an opportunity to look through a new lens, which demonstrates an attitude of acceptance and directs focus away from the chaos towards the task at hand and the process that needs to be followed. In short, successful leaders acknowledge the challenge and don’t get caught up in emotion, they remain self aware, managing their emotions and thought processes. They understand that whilst they may not have control of external factors, they do have control of how they react to the environment around them. Strong leaders manage to portray a sense of calmness even though they may be scrambling inside.
As the uncertainty emerges strong leaders step up to the plate. They remain patient and try not to act impulsively gathering as much information as they can before choosing a path. They look objectively at possible solutions identifying what they can control and what is beyond their sphere of influence, listening attentively for any additional information that may assist in providing a roadmap out of the current predicament. By maintaining a calm environment people will be more comfortable to come and share information, ideas and solutions with you. In times of crisis information is critical, if you create an environment that is calm and encourages sharing and collaboration you are more likely to have access to the relevant information at the right time. Clearly and confidently articulating very deliberate choices and reasons for next steps eases the anxiety of those you lead and encourages a sharp focus on a plan for the future.
Uncertainty brings with it a degree of pressure which seems to increase as the uncertainty continues. At this time bringing a level of perspective and balance is vitally important. Too many people start to catastrophize and lead down a negative path imagining all the things that could go wrong. Thinking logically about possible scenarios, whilst not downplaying any possible negative outcomes, is a skill that some have naturally but many of us develop through experience. Those with experience will notice cycles in their industry and will be able to use this knowledge to provide balance and perspective of lessons learned previously. Past experiences allow you to get a read on possible scenarios, think through previously tabled solutions and look for any similarities to use as a starting point for discussion. Drawing on this knowledge or talking to others who may possess it is a key strategy when faced with mounting chaos.
When the challenge arises and others scramble for cover, strategic leaders demonstrate a level of vulnerability, acknowledging that there may be no obvious solutions available but balance this with a calm determination that there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome. Whilst vulnerability will be welcomed by some it is a fine line between this and sending an unconscious message that you may be in over your head. It is critically important to use your EQ and read the room to know just how much to open up. This is a time when your team needs to feel confident that you are the person that can lead them out of this scenario. Starting your address with “I’m not sure how we get through this’ will lose those you lead regardless of what follows next. Research has shown that leaders who appear calm are viewed as more capable and are able to build the trust of those they lead more readily. Those you lead will be more willing to listen and take direction from you if you appear to have everything under control.
When the chaos comes and it will, think about the steps below to get you through.
- Slow Down – Take a few deep breaths and clear your head. Sometimes the clock is ticking and the faster you try to problem solve the more mistakes you make. When you slow down you can process information more accurately which allows you to be more deliberate in your actions and choices.
- Ask Questions – Information is key at times of uncertainty. Ask questions, listen carefully and dig into answers. Sometimes when you ask the right questions the answers have a way of revealing themselves.
- Identify the Experts – No-one can have all the answers, understand that there are people with greater subject matter expertise than you. Identify them and seek their assistance.
- Focus – If this is the priority, all other things can wait. Give yourself a few minutes to focus by putting down the phone and stop checking your emails. If this really is a crisis then it needs your attention, stay focussed.
- Stay Optimistic – Regardless of how chaotic the time is there will be an end to it. Trust in your ability and that of your team. You will overcome this challenge and will seize the opportunities that lay ahead.
- Watch Your Messaging – Not just what you say but also your tone and body language. Those you lead will pick up on inconsistencies and subtitles in your messaging. Keep it clear, calm and consistent.
In leadership positions there are always time of uncertainty, being caught up in the ensuing chaos will serve no-one. As a leader in these situations you have a choice, create a calm environment or feed the chaos. Your role is to focus on what matters most at that time and in most cases it is keeping your people and organisation safe, the best way to do this is to lead with a calming confidence. Knowing that these times may be uncomfortable and accepting it and leaning into the discomfort rather than finding ways to avoid it will be what separates you from other leaders. Our instincts will be to duck and weave, that’s basic self preservation but in times of chaos we all have a choice, step up, stay calm and lead through.
Why Would Anyone Be Led By You?
Just recently I was asked this question ‘Why would anyone be led you?’ It’s a pretty big question and one that I found difficult to answer. The natural reaction was a well-considered “I’m not sure”. There is certain degree of humility required to answer it properly. It definitely provides a significant pause point for reflection. I started by thinking about the most influential leaders that I have worked with and others that I know of or have read about. I considered the leadership traits that they displayed and tried to compare how I lead with how they have led me or lead their teams. It’s an interesting point of comparison. What was it about their style that had people follow them and, in some cases, actively choose to enlist support for them? They certainly displayed a range of highly developed leadership attributes that they were able to draw upon depending on the setting/context they found themselves in. As I started to cross reference the skills and try to identify if I shared similar attributes, I came to a conclusion. People follow you because you are you. Whilst I may collect elements from each leader, ultimately it is how I choose to implement the various skills that make up my leadership. I can’t try to be like another leader, I need to be me.
It’s not just a compelling vision or an ability to inspire that will see people willingly be led by you. Vision and inspiration help to get a journey started but they only last for so long. When the day to day work begins and the routine sets in it’s your leadership that helps keep the momentum. There is a wide range of leadership characteristics that form part of any successful leaders’ armoury. Courage, honesty, integrity, humility, instinct, empathy are all key qualities and not every leader has access to them all. The one quality that every leader does have access to though is themselves. Why would anyone be led by you? Because you are you. Being authentically you and not trying to be anyone else is a significant leadership lesson. I’m not suggesting we are all perfectly made, we all have flaws, but they make up you. The is no definitive list of leadership attributes because as the context shifts and relationships change successful leaders must adapt to the circumstances and call upon the skills needed at that time in that context. When circumstances change and they will, trying to lead based on someone else’s style can be difficult to navigate and leave you feeling like a fraud. If you are always trying to be copy of somebody else then your talents and gifts never get an opportunity to shine.
It continues to surprise me how many leaders try to be someone who they are not. It takes a great deal of energy to be someone you are not and those that we lead get a sense that there is an incongruence between your words and actions. Being ourselves and showing that we have areas for development sends a very strong message, that we accept growth, that we can’t do it all alone and that we will always strive to improve because we can. Being authentic in your leadership by knowing who you are, what your strengths are and your areas for development will do far more to enlist support than striving to be someone you are not. Authentic leaders show a self-awareness that allows them to display their vulnerabilities without losing influence. These leaders have a sharp sense of timing. There are times for strength in leadership, when everyone is looking to you for guidance and there are times to share vulnerability. Authentic leaders are astute at taking the temperature of the environment and picking the right time to share. It’s not a case that they are trying to manipulate an environment but more an emotional intelligence that allows them to determine that this is what is needed at that point in time. Sharing one of your less glorious moments can certainly take the heat out of a room and lighten the mood, whereas a well-crafted narrative about a success can rally support and inspire action.
Authentic leaders hold to their principles. Principles are different from values and beliefs. Your values and beliefs can change over time as you become exposed to a range of experiences. Your principles however are fundamentally you. These are the things that you will not compromise on. Authentic leaders stick firm to their principles, and this shows through in their leadership behaviour and decision making. I’m not suggesting that authentic leaders display a stubbornness that does not allow for compromise. It’s more a case of their moral compass being strong in particular areas and this will always drive their decision making and leadership behaviours. These leaders are often described as being genuine. They are honest and don’t have hidden agendas which leave people guessing about their intent. They may not be open books and are certainly gifted strategists knowing when to share and when to keep information close, but their purpose is always aligned to their principles and is perfectly understood by those they lead. There is a consistency about their leadership that provides a degree of certainty and dependability. You know in times of complexity these leaders will roll up the sleeves and get to work to ensure that those they lead have the confidence to get the job done. There is a great deal of trust that develops when our leaders provide certainty amidst the chaos. The calming influence of a leader who has both hands on the wheel as they navigate the obstacles can never be understated.
The one significant challenge that authentic leaders face is growth. Being authentic can mean sometimes the default position is to rely on the skills and talents that have been successful for you in the past. The difficulty here is that what has gotten you to your current level may not be what is required to get you to the next. It’s been described as being caught in your stylistic comfort zone. Expectations change as responsibility increases which can leave you feeling like you are not being authentically you as you are challenged to move outside your comfort zone and potentially re-invent your leadership style. This is where a strong sense of self awareness is needed to identify what it is that you need to do next to continue to develop your leadership capacity. Successful leaders have the self-discipline that is needed to test themselves, to move outside their comfort zone and take on new challenges that will expose them to new learning. The attitude of ‘if you wait until you are ready, you’ll never be ready’ is a driving force here. At times being able to move toward a goal and keep moving forward despite setbacks displays more about your character and authenticity than the actual achievement.
The paradox of authenticity and leadership growth is a natural part of the leadership pathway. I guarantee that you are not the same leader now that you were 5 years ago. We must learn from other leaders. It would be foolish not to examine different styles, but it is your responsibility to take the various elements of leadership and make them your own. You can then choose to implement them in your way, in your context with your people. As you grow and adapt your style you are making it your own which brings authenticity. Herminia Ibarra, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, describes this as being playful with your leadership development. Just like a child would explore and experiment during play, leaders too can extend themselves by moving outside their comfort zones bringing new dimensions to their leadership. Trying on different styles and seeing if they fit your purpose and work for you is all part of the journey. In the end being authentic in your leadership is about being you. Yes, we need to develop, yes, we need to grow but when you look in the mirror you will know the truth. It’s not the title, the position or the power that makes a great leader, it’s the ability to add value to the lives of those you lead. Authentic leaders build trusting relationships, they understand it’s about the people they lead. How do you know if your leadership has left a positive impact? How might you identify this? Take some time to reflect on these questions and then maybe you can answer , why would anyone be led by you?
Empathy – Leadership’s Soft Skill
Empathy is generally described as the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s having the the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of another person and then act accordingly. Leading human organisations, where feelings and emotions impact on views, thoughts and attitudes, we are faced with multiple perspectives and using this soft skill can have tangible results. When we take time to reflect on the perspective of others we cast away assumptions and avoid jumping to conclusions providing a clarity to our decision making. For this reason being able to empathise could potentially be one of the most important leadership skills of the 21st Century.
As an empathetic leader, you are aware of the feelings of others and are able to appreciate what another person is going through. This does not mean that you necessarily agree with them. There are times when those we lead feel a range of emotions as a result of a looming deadline, the introduction of a new initiative or a decision that has been made. We all feel pressure at various stages of our careers and question the expectations placed upon us. Empathy though, is not about lowering expectations it is about knowing when to reinforce them. There are times when a compassionate ear is all that is needed, but there may also be times when it is coupled with a supportive scaffold to assist with the task at hand. When you use empathy to identify why someone is behaving the way they are the person feels valued and heard and therefore, is better positioned to accept responsibility for their actions, understand the decision being made or the expectations being placed upon them.
Empathetic leaders are non-judgemental. The nature of our positions often find us time poor, looking to expedite decisions and conversations so we can complete our busy schedules. This presents us with a challenge where it can be habitual to listen to a colleague whilst running a parallel internal dialogue making judgements about the nature of their feelings, perceptions or reactions in order to efficiently identify a solution. Truly empathetic leaders are free of this, they know that if you are running a diagnostic internal process you’ve already cast judgement, meaning you can’t accurately perceive another’s emotional state. I’ve always been of the view that we feel the way we feel, no-one can tell us how or why we should feel a particular way, it’s the way we deal with it that makes the difference. An empathetic leader is able to reserve judgement, listen and then meet people where they are. A successful leader will then use this as the platform to build on for future success.
In times of heightened emotion people’s ability to make rational decisions can be significantly impaired. When meeting with a person whose emotions are overflowing it’s time to be a good listener. As leaders we are often good problem solvers, listening to our colleagues to find solutions or alternative pathways is important. As an empathetic leader we must put our complete focus on the person standing in front of us showing that we are fully present. This can be very difficult at times and can require a great deal of concentration, especially with a full agenda and a queue building at the door. Being a good listener and showing we are present in the conversation allows a better chance to have our colleagues open up and share the underlying reason behind the emotion. If we shift our attention too quickly and try to solve the issue we run the risk of stemming the flow. We must finely tune our understanding of body language and speech patterns to know the right time to intervene. The best way to do this is to remain open during conversations and place your complete focus on the person in front of you.
Empathetic leaders display enormous amounts of self-control. When dealing with a highly emotional person who may be expressing their concerns in a way that can be confronting, empathy can be the first thing that gets discarded. When hurtful comments get made we often feel the need to defend and can become impatient. The empathetic leader is able to park that rising emotion before speaking. You can feel the emotion rising in your body, some call it the red mist, the true leader will recognise it and allow time for a moment of reflection before speaking. It can also be useful to take a break in the conversation to clear enough space to communicate effectively. By creating space we provide time to reflect and see the issue through another’s perspective allowing us an opportunity to make sense of the emotion behind the response. You will never be able to be reactive and empathetic at the same time, displaying empathy for others means we must utilise self-control before we speak.
So much of our self is tied up in what we do. When we meet people at a social gatherings we introduce ourselves and follow up with I am a (insert Occupation). We don’t say I am a husband, a father, a brother, we say I am a (insert Occupation) what do you do? We are so heavily invested in our chosen career paths that it can be very easy to become emotionally charged when we don’t understand or agree with a decision or when we feel that it has a negative impact on our wellbeing. As leaders we must understand that the bottom line is our success comes through our people. Our people are the most powerful indicators of our ability to meet our organisations goals. People have emotions and feelings, they go through moods and at times attitudes vary. They have lives outside of the work place that impact on their ability to function at their optimum. Being aware of this, remaining open to understand the feelings and emotions of others is critical in our human centric environment.
Whether you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or place the shoe on the other foot, remember everyone has a story that has led them to this point. Your job is to tune in to what the person standing in front of you is going through and respond in a way that shows that you acknowledge their feelings and understand the issue from their perspective. I’m not suggesting that you should always agree and I would never expect you to lower your standards. Just know that empathy is the fuel that powers effective relationships. It shows that we support our people and when we do that anything is possible.