The three values that define a leader in crisis
Have you ever considered this? COVID-19 is not the first pandemic we have faced. Generations before us have weathered similar crises — and survived. In fact, that is why we are still here! Not to mention, every single generation before us had far fewer resources at their disposal than we do today, but they overcame, and so will we.
In a crisis, leaders are expected to rise to the occasion — it’s what sets them apart. The leader’s service in crisis solidifies their credibility and empowers them to lead when calm is restored. With that in mind, what are these “essential services” that leaders cultivate that allow those they lead to navigate crisis — and even thrive in the process? I have identified three that I believe are indispensable as we face today’s unique challenges and the ones that are undoubtedly yet to come.
When we think of the word agility, images that may come to our mind include jungle cats, Olympic gymnasts and dancers. Agility implies speed, but even more than speed, it suggests grace and precision in movement — the capacity to change and adapt rapidly, depending on the context. A high-speed train may be fast, but it’s not agile. It is limited to the tracks on which it runs, and any deviation spells disaster.
In leadership, there are no tracks. We must be willing and able to pivot, to adjust our speed and direction when the situation requires it. Just because something is fast, doesn’t mean it’s effective. If anything, doing things rapidly increases the risk of making mistakes, overlooking what is important and actually moving us further away from the goal.
In March, my travel schedule was ruined, but today I spoke in Canada, tomorrow I will be Mexico and two days ago I was in Guatemala — all through the wonders of technology. Agility is the ability to respond to opportunity when it arises, and to do so not simply quickly, but effectively. Yes, this is not what I would have envisioned six months ago, but agility has allowed me to potentially connect with more people than my previous travel schedule allowed.
The unexpected requires agility to respond to the present, as well as the future. No one was expecting a pandemic. On March 14, we discovered that we would need to put restrictions in place for meeting as a church. The next day was Sunday, and we still managed to have three services that day. In the weeks to come, as some churches closed their doors, we cut capacity in in-person services to 50 percent, launched a drive-in service and began broadcasting on Zoom, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.
The events of the last six months have not been — nor will they be — the biggest, unexpected crisis we will face. In September 2017, Puerto Ricans faced the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Our house was without electricity for six months, and our island is still dealing with the impact of the storm. If Puerto Rico has been able to navigate the Coronavirus pandemic, it is partly because Hurricane Maria was our bootcamp.
More than mere speed, agility is at its heart the capacity and flexibility to change.
The popular TV series Undercover Boss depicts a supervisor secretly working alongside employees and discovering the corporate dysfunctions that their employees face every day. While we may not have the opportunity to go undercover at our organizations, businesses and churches, we should seek to understand what it is that our teams need and how we can better serve them.
The current crisis has in many ways flattened the bureaucracy of our organizations and given us, as leaders, a window into how they are running. If we will resist the urge to be stubborn in the face of this disruption, our organizations, businesses and ministries may be positioned for growth and acceleration based on this new insight.
One example of this “flattening” is in the growth of our use of technology. Six months ago, only people in the business world were using web conferencing platforms. Now, “Zooming” is a verb that everyone — from kids in elementary school to grandparents chatting with their grandchildren — are familiar with. This and other tools have entered into our shared vocabulary and given accessibility to a new audience of people.
A deeper area in which this flattening is occurring is the accessibility that leaders have given to those they lead. We’re all in this together, and there’s nothing like a crisis to reveal how much we have in common. The saying, “My door is always open,” has been a cliché for some leaders, but what happens if there’s no longer a door? The door may be open, but what if the office is empty due to the leader’s absence. If we don’t have a door for them to knock on, what’s the equivalent?
The equivalent is the leader’s invitation: “Come to me whenever you need something.” My job is to make their lives easier, to help them solve the problems they cannot solve. “Come to me,” I tell them, “and we will work together.” This is what I do at my church and my personal businesses — that’s why my “door” is always open.
Not only do people expect to have access to their leaders, but they want their leaders to come to them as well. As is demonstrated in Undercover Boss, there is great impact when a leader enters their team’s work environment, gets to know what they do and allows them to show the leader what they do — no matter how menial the task may be. This is not just supervision; it’s accessibility.
Sometimes people mythologize their leaders or place them on a pedestal. In small groups in my church, my oldest daughters meet the youth here in our house. I can see their faces when the pastor comes down the stairs. It’s intimidating for them, and sometimes they’re shy.
In the world of politics, accessibility is often signaled when a politician takes off their suit jacket and rolls up their shirt sleeves. Regardless of how true it may be, it sends a signal that the politician wants to be involved in the lives of their constituents, to work together to solve problems.
Let’s overcome the invisible barriers and “get into it” with our people. Go deep with those you lead. Be a part of their lives.
Authenticity has become something of a catchphrase. But that doesn’t make it any less crucial for leaders navigating challenging times. Authenticity is revealed both in the emotional input that a leader is willing to receive and in their emotional output.
First, a leader must be willing to receive feedback authentically by practicing active listening. Through active listening, the leader empathetically experiences what the speaker is sharing and is able to enter his or her world. In these settings, the one sharing can usually tell if the listener is simply gathering information to solve problems or track performance, interrogating or even going through the motions and checking off boxes. Authentic listening is a transfer of emotions — without judgment or the need to offer immediate solutions.
Second, a leader must be willing to share his or her life authentically — the emotional output he or she projects. Emotions are contagious, and because of this, a leader must radiate positivity, good humor and empathy. It’s good to show that you share the same fears they do. Don’t hide your problems — people are going to find out anyway. Your followers will mirror your emotions, either sharing a vision for a bright future or anticipating impending disaster.
Whether you are on the receiving end of others’ emotions, or you are sharing your own, authenticity means you are not faking it. You cannot fake positivity, and you cannot fake having a vision for the future. You either feel it or you don’t. When we as leaders allow others to see how we truly are, we earn the right to ask them to help us reach our goals. In fact, they become shared goals.
This article was extracted from Issue 3 (Fall 2020) of the AVAIL Journal.