Last week, an enormously skilled and experienced CEO said to me, “Last week was the hardest week of my career”. Another said, “I’m finishing every day shattered, but I still can’t sleep”.
Under these conditions, some leaders are imploding while others are flourishing. Within some organisations, I’ve heard employees speak of how well their leaders have responded and expressing a high level of trust in their decision-making. Elsewhere, I’ve heard the opposite – leaders in denial, absent from engaging with their people, hijacked by panic or frozen in inaction.
The reality is that for many leaders, at all levels from heads of state to front-line supervisors, this may be the most challenging circumstances in which they have ever, or will ever, lead. Certainly, it is hard to imagine a situation where such a broad cross-section of leaders has been stretched at the same time.
This is for obvious reasons, most notably the confluence of financial and health threats at a societal level, the intertwining of the professional and the personal and the additional challenges of remote working and isolation measures. It’s one thing to have the challenge of making employees redundant, it’s quite another to do so at a time where your own job is at risk, as well as those of family members, while you or loved ones are at threat of a lethal virus, and you’ve been ordered not to leave the house except for emergencies.
None of us would ever wish something as horrid as a pandemic on the world. However, the reality is that, while we can all play our role in reducing contagion, very few of us will materially impact the global solutions to the pandemic. But what we can do is take the leadership opportunity that this presents. For many of us, there will never be a greater opportunity.
Yet far too few realise that this period is, very pointedly, an examination of their substance as leaders.
In a poll of 500 of Bendelta’s clients, the most common cited name for a leader who had faced into the crisis was Jacinta Adern. Numerous others were called out for praise. Nobody who responded struggled to name at least one leader from somewhere – from political office, the medical profession, their company, their child’s school, the local community or elsewhere – who they felt had led well. (Similarly, people found it easy to name those whose qualities had been less than admirable.)
A much smaller number felt that they could say “I recognised that this was my opportunity to be a better leader than I’ve ever been”.
It’s an interesting quirk of human nature, that we can easily evaluate the qualities of others, yet not hold the same mirror up to ourselves. This, though, is the ideal opportunity to do that, and that is what some leaders are doing – for the benefit of their employees, their society and for their own self-actualisation.
The answers come from a leaders’s being – from being in tune with one’s life purpose and moral compass, so that values drive an authentic but considered response. That produces leadership virtues such as wisdom and humanity.
This is not simply an opportunity to demonstrate effective behaviours – calm, compassion, clarity and others – as important as those are right now. This is a chance to realise one’s life purpose as a leader – to face into the storm, place one’s values at the core of every action and undertake a very challenging but rewarding journey of self-discovery.
As Joseph Campbell has put it “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek”. For many leaders there has never been a deeper, darker cave than this one. No wonder that some leaders refuse to enter, and others going running as far from it as they can.
It is not self-indulgent to see the pandemic’s challenges as an opportunity for personal growth. That’s because every step that a leader takes to move into discomfort will be a step towards helping other people come out of this crisis in some way – perhaps with their health, their career, their financial security or their dignity intact.
Where to start? It’s important for leaders to understand that their situation is full of choices right now. They may feel as though they have few choices but the opposite is true. They have a choice of whether to embrace the values that they like to believe they hold dear, or be hypocritical. They have a choice of whether to show generosity of spirit and community-mindedness or whether to act in self-interest. They have a choice of whether to leave the hardest tasks to others or to step up themselves. They have a choice of whether to criticise others or to hold the mirror up to themselves. They have a choice of whether to bowed by their fears or to show the courage to face their fears. They have the choice to be compassionate or distant, authentic or furtive, collaborative or insular.
It’s also important for leaders to understand the challenges and opportunities for leading at their best at this time. On the one hand, because leaders are likely to be fatigued and subject to high levels of emotion, there is a significant risk of them not seeing where they are leading poorly and failing to be their best selves. When the limbic brain takes over, and we move into flight-fight- or-freeze mode, our ability to be self-aware quickly disappears. It’s why someone might shout “I’m not shouting” and have no idea of the reality. Or it might be why someone says “I’m being very humane” after a series of misanthropic slurs – they have lost their self- awareness.
On the other hand, if the leader can take sufficient steps to check themselves and seek feedback, there can be no greater time for self-awareness and growth as a leader. As Warren Bennis said, “Leaders learn by leading, and they learn best by leading in the face of obstacles. As weather shapes mountains, problems shape leaders.” These are times of huge mountains and problems. These ‘heat experiences’ are the best possible opportunity to grow and fulfil one’s potential as a leader – but only if one sees the opportunity and has the humility to accept how much room exists for personal growth.
To draw on one other quote, Hegel said that “A tragedy is a conflict between two rights”. That is precisely why this is such a demanding time for leaders. There will be many situations where it is not clear what is right. Do I protect my family or my wider community? Do I risk my own health to play a leading role now or safeguard it so I can lead for longer? Do I cut jobs now or hold off and potentially have to cut more later? Should my decisions be based on equality or merit? Is this meeting a time to show confidence or vulnerability? Should I raise hope right now or help people see the stark realities confronting us? When, if ever, should I compromise a principle for the sake of pragmatism?
These are times when no leadership handbook can tell you the right answers. The situations are simply too nuanced, too multi-faceted for there to be a ‘right’ answer. Mature leaders appreciate that life is seldom black-and-white. The answers instead come from a leader’s being – from being in tune with one’s life purpose and moral compass, so that values drive an authentic but considered response. That produces leadership virtues such as wisdom and humanity.
One does not have to be a perfect leader, because there is no such person. Rather, one needs to see that there has never been a better time to strive to be the best leader one can be – and a better leader than one has ever been before.
While that requires a complexity of mind that few leaders possess, it is certainly is something to which all leaders can aspire. One does not have to be a perfect leader, because there is no such person. Rather, one needs to see that there has never been a better time to strive to be the best leader one can be – and a better leader than one has ever been before.
Great leaders are simply those who look the hardest at themselves to see such a presence or absence, then step up to the challenge of being better.
That pursuit, that striving, that willingness to see the opportunities for self-improvement is palpable. When others see a leader making such an investment – and see that the leader is doing it not for self-glorification but to be of greatest service to their fellow human beings – that creates incredible positive regard – we want to see our leaders lead well in these situations, we wish them well and lean towards admiring them. (This is why national leaders receive a bump in support in polls during crisis – we are willing them to succeed and giving our support to help them do so.)
Over the coming few months, some will step into this crucible, some will not, and some will not even see that it existed. Some leaders will fall short – succumbing to less noble urges than the character they are capable of showing.
But others will outstretch anything they had ever before demonstrated as a leader. And while only some will achieve this, every leader can do so. And some will discover that anyone can be a leader – it is not attached to job title, staff responsibility, seniority or anything extrinsic. Leadership is a virtue that can be displayed by anyone – it resides solely in how we choose to respond to the circumstances that surround us.
The truly astonishing fact is that every one of us has the ability to be a great leader in this time of crisis. It resides in us, in the core principles of humanity in our DNA. Each one of us can recognise morality, compassion and generosity – we can see its presence or absence in others and, if we look hard enough, we can see its presence or absence in ourselves at every moment in our lives.
Great leaders are simply those who look the hardest at themselves to see such presence or absence, then step up to the challenge of being better. While nobody is always at their best, some leaders do that frequently. In a crisis though, it’s much easier to both see the opportunities to lead better, and to turn away, refusing to acknowledge a dissonance between who we know we could be and who we are actually being.
Right now, every leader has the chance to be a great leader, to be the leader that perhaps they never thought they could be, but had inside themselves all along.
This article was written by Anthony Mitchell co-founder and Chief Potential Officer of Bendelta. He is an internationally recognised thought leader in strategic leadership. He has been advising companies internationally for the last 25 years, working across more than 30 countries on five continents. He advises clients ranging from leading multi-nationals and listed companies to major government agencies and not-for-profits.