“Recognize that while the personality of a leader is important, how those essential character traits combine to make up that personality – those individual strengths and weaknesses – may differ tremendously depending on circumstance, environment, and reaction to the employee pool.”
To perform effectively and inspire the best from their team, the leader must be flexible and adaptable and responsive to rapidly changing conditions. In weeks past, we considered the importance of the leader understanding their strengths and weaknesses, that they know themselves, their biases, the areas in which they excel, and the areas in which they are growing. The measure of knowing oneself is called your psychological hardiness: how comfortable the leader is in their own skin, how resilient they are, and the extent to which the leader may maintain their health and mental performance under pressure.
In today’s everchanging and complex environment, solving problems (and leading teams) requires a new way of thinking. Turner and Boylan suggest that there are two perspectives from which the Leader must approach their task; the complexity of the operating environment, and the complexity of the organization. I submit that for the competent leader, nine times out of ten, the complexity of the task pales in comparison to addressing the complexity of the organization.
For the organization to be successful, the organization must also be flexible and adaptable. I would add to this postulate by suggesting that it is the Leader who will pivot first – to be successful, the organization must follow.
While ‘normal’ day-to-day activities most often provide time to think and to consider an array of decisions before acting, at no time is the importance of the Leader’s ability to be flexible and adaptable more evident – and important – than in a time of crisis. Thus, requiring an expert balancing act between personal character (strengths and weaknesses) and adaptability. There are certain circumstances that the Leader will face, whether a large-scale crisis with significant organizational implications or a smaller scale day-to-day crisis, based more perhaps in office drama than business propriety.
The Complexity of the Organization
Are your employees open to change? In every organization, there will be employees in both camps – those who are open, and those who are not. While some find solace, comfort, and reassurance in routine, others buck the notion of perceived stagnation and forbearance of upward mobility and growth. The Leader in this brave new world must be mindful of these two perspectives but also realize that there are specific characteristics that each group shares. For example, if the Leader has determined the group’s five pillars of ‘why’ (see the previous article), the Leader will better understand the common thread of vision and purpose that all employees share, regardless of which camp they are in. In addition, I draw your attention to a remark I made in the ‘Introduction’ section of this series: that all people, whether in a central office or dispersed across a geographically challenging global network of sites, genuinely crave competent leadership. Subordinates will follow a leader who inspires trust, who sets vision and direction with assuredness and confidence.
So, does the Leader embrace those who pursue change with vigor and pretend that those “mired in routine” do not exist? Or perhaps the other way around – work on those resistant to change and leave the “go-getters” to their own devices? Obviously, neither! The Leader must embrace both groups fully, knowing that the days of the “Command and Control” management style are well behind us.
The Paradox of Employee Attitudes
Regardless of which group they fall into, employees are resistant to change for one reason – and one reason only – poor execution of change management on the part of leadership. Human nature is pre-programmed such that we all have a built-in, inherent basic distrust of change in any form – some of us more than others (or so it seems). It is for this reason that Leaders face challenges with all types of employees when implementing change. (Another, more theatrical and dramatic way to think of ‘change management’ might be for some, to say, ‘crisis resolution.’)
The Leader in the brave new world cannot successfully promote change without modeling a clear set of values, defining a clear vision and path forward for their employees, and demonstrating a strong personal philosophy of leadership. The Leader must be open and willing to share and discuss their personal values and beliefs while encouraging an open and honest two-way dialogue with staff. This dialogue may delve into helping employees understand the personal whys of the Leader. While everyone must be mindful of the individual and professional boundaries that should not be crossed – those lines in the sand that are immovable for professional, personal, and privileged reasons – the Leader should, however, be prepared to share something of themselves during these critical conversations. This provides a frank opportunity for the Leader to clearly reinforce the basic tenants of the company’s mission and corporate direction as non-negotiable’s while at the same time strengthening organizational values in alignment with a personal sense of purpose.
The Leader must make it clear that all employees are expected to take an active role in the company’s growth, thus promoting accountability and autonomy.
Investment, Empowerment, and Growth
For much of my early career, I threw around the term ’empowerment’ as the be-all and end-all solution for managers everywhere. Especially my managers! “Empower me – please! Let me grow! I won’t let you down!” And I had no intention of letting my boss down in any way, shape, or form – ever!
While my intentions were good and meaning well placed, I was wrong to seek this. Empowerment has come to mean, “I am giving you responsibility for this task because I don’t want to do it myself!” Empowering your team is NOT the first step in building employee confidence in your leadership ability. Trusting and investing in those you lead is the most explicit demonstration of your confidence not only in your team but also in your own ability to lead them. When you trust and invest in your people, you give them the ability to think through problems on their own. Investing in your team means making sure that they have all the necessary tools and training to be successful. Trusting your team is knowing that what you are investing will be absorbed and put to good use. Your team members will take these new tools and use them to grow personally and professionally.
The Leader in this brave new world must assess and acknowledge the areas of weakness within their team and, subsequently, invest in the tools and training to mitigate those weaknesses on an individual and group level. When you trust and invest in your team, you are endowing them with the flexibility to think through problems on their own. Learning to develop confidence is a measured risk and the time to learn new and important skills is not at the most pivotal moment of an organizational crisis.
Leaders should be investing in their employees toward growth and development in those times in between. Those times that make up every day, day-to-day opportunity. Slowly, these skills form a long-term foundation of personal experience, and employees become competent, skilled, adaptable, and flexible. Employees become endowed and able to confront change at almost any level without any oversight or guidance at all. All this time, the Leader’s trust and their investment in learning foster a sense of pride and teamwork as individual team members teach and show others what they, too, can accomplish.
Perhaps empowerment is one of the greatest misconceptions in business today. The Leader does not “empower” the employee (per se) by simply saying to them, “You have the authority to make this decision.” At the critical moment – whatever that moment may be – the employee must feel confident, legitimized, and sanctioned to act. Without trust and investment preceding this moment, the employee will surely fail.
The Complexity of the Task
While emphasis thus far has been on understanding the organization and relegating task complexity to the second string, there are certainly situations in which a leader’s ability to navigate the complexity of the task will sometimes dictate the very survival of the organization. In a crisis, the Leader’s individual adaptability will be tested. Individual adaptability depends on both relational skills (mindset) and situational training (cognitive ability) but also depends greatly on preparation – mental and organizational.
I often give presentations dedicated solely to the topic of Leadership in a Crisis Situation and have dedicated a full chapter of the book to just this subject, but in sticking with the interest and intent of this short missive, will summarize only the most important points here – many of which I have learned through personal experience.
During a catastrophic event, the entire organization is looking to its Leader for assurance that there is someone in the organization that has command of a situation that is otherwise completely out of everyone else’s control. It is a deep-seated human need to feel you have some control over your life, your destiny, some influence over the things going on in the environment around you, and to feel cared for. When a loss of control infringes on the day-to-day routine, subordinates look to the Leader to protect them. To manage the incident successfully, to move them out of harm’s way, to reduce or eliminate the potential for loss, and to return a sense of ‘normal’ to an otherwise untenable situation.
Perhaps the single most important character trait that a Leader must display in the midst of a crisis is that of empathy. Empathy is a crucial aspect of organizational communication, and the empathetic message reduces uncertainty and chaos by providing sense and meaning to otherwise overwhelming events . By demonstrating and practicing empathy, the Leader can give a sense of value, legitimacy, and perceived control of the crisis.
The Leader cannot simply project calm by being calm as this is only one small aspect of the overall essential persona. The Leader must be abundantly aware of how the amplified perception of everything they do and say will be observed and interpreted by staff. Incidental emotions (emotional energy) are both real and pronounced in the midst of a crisis. In this brave new world, where data moves at the speed of technology, the Leader must be the single source of credible and legitimate information for the organization. There must be an infrastructure in place to disseminate such information quickly and broadly. The message to staff cannot come from the media department or the PIO; it must come from the Leader them-self to carry the necessary level of legitimacy as dictated by the given situation.
The Leader must be flexible and adaptable, and the extent to which the Leader can pivot and expect the organization to follow will depend largely on the Leader’s psychological hardiness. Whether addressing organizational challenges or facing dilemmas brought about by outside influences beyond the organization’s control, the extent to which the Leader has invested in the employee pool will largely dictate the outcome.
Personal responsibility and accountability start with the Leader and these traits spread naturally throughout an organization to the employee base when employees are provided the opportunity to engage in open, honest, and frank two-way interaction with Leaders. During these conversations, the Leader must take the opportunity to define the non-negotiable’s of the corporate mission and vision but also be willing to share the personal values and characteristics that make them human – a degree of vulnerability. This dialogue, when engaged in honestly, allows the employee the opportunity to assess the degree to which their values align with those of the company, defining early on who is and who potentially is not a ‘good fit’ in the employee pool. When personal values and purpose align, so does the group conscience.
The Leader should be ever aware of their overall presence and the message that this delivers, especially in times of crisis. While crisis events serve to amplify both incidental emotions and the Leader’s overall message, they also tend to magnify areas in which there are shortcomings. The Leader should be ever vigilant to ensure that there is an investment in growth, development, and preparation of the employee pool, remembering that investment and trust in the ‘normal’ times produces a confident employee who feels sanctioned to act in times of real need.
How does this structure then evolve to a level of team responsibility and accountability, where not only the individual employee feels prepared, but the entire team feels trusted to set their own standards of performance?
10. Boylan, S. and K. Turner, Developing organizational adaptability for complex environment. Journal of Educational Leadership, 2017. 16(2): p. 1-16.
11. Broekema, W., C. van Eijk, and R. Torenvlied, The role of external experts in crisis situations: A research synthesis of 114 post-crisis evaluation reports in the Netherlands. International Journal of Disaster and Risk Reduction, 2018. 31: p. 20-29.