Leadership from a distance
‘Unprecedented’. A word we seem to be hearing on repeat at the moment. And rightly so – if someone had told me 6 months ago that we would be in this situation, in all honesty I would have nodded politely and rolled my eyes when they weren’t looking… (I would have been wrong).
But it does feel as though, despite the growing concern in the weeks before lockdown, that there just wasn’t enough time to fully prepare for this both operationally and mentally, and the impact will be difficult to measure until much further down the line. In this sort of situation, it can be incredibly easy for even the most prepared business leader to feel a lack of control and uncertainty. And let’s face it, aren’t we all feeling a little like that at the moment anyway!? Add in the pressure of keeping a business moving, communicating difficult decisions to employees, trying to keep revenue streams open without pushing too hard in a delicate and sensitive climate, AND managing the personal struggles that come with the lockdown – how can anyone possibly keep their head above water personally, and lead a team efficiently under those circumstances?
The answer is, put simply, you can’t. Some days you will feel perfectly afloat, other days you will feel like you’re going down with the ship. Despite the monotony of lockdown, no two days will be the same as you try and navigate your way through all things unprecedented. So, our first bit of advice? It’s okay to feel like this. Even the most resilient leader will be feeling the wobbly knees of insecurity in these tough times, and the earlier you accept and process that this is potentially going to be a bumpy road is probably for the better, not least because it will make things feel a little lighter, and a little easier. Every leader and leadership style are different, as are the coping mechanisms people use to deal with stressful situations. None are wrong, but I’ve found that the following points can be helpful:
Be honest: Yes, sometimes there is such a thing as too much information, and sometimes it could feel like the right thing to shield your team from bad news or negative numbers. But that’s not always the case, and especially not in lockdown. Your team are already feeling stressed and under pressure in this new situation – not only working in a new environment, but not having that constant communication (even if it’s catching up on Tiger King whilst making a coffee), and consistent, regular feedback is really going to affect their anxiety levels. They’re already going to be wondering how the business is doing, nervous about all the headlines, and seeing post after post about people they know losing their jobs. Which means they don’t need fluff, or thin words of encouragement, they need honest, clear answers from their leader. It’s not easy, but it will help people feel calmer knowing exactly what’s happening, even if it is bad news.
Be vulnerable: I don’t mean you need to ring your admin assistant and tell them you think your dog hates you. I mean make sure you let your team know you’re human too, you’re not just a command centre barking orders or doing laps in your swimming pool of money. You’re a person. You have worries and fears and things that make you tick, and you’re just as affected on a personal level by everything that’s going on as your team. It maybe isn’t a traditional leadership method but showing humility will acquire more respect than robotic strength.
Be kind: Sounds like a given, but these are scary times. People are losing jobs, some are losing loved ones, some are struggling with their mental health. And some people aren’t always willing to talk about what they’re going through or how they’re feeling to a work colleague, let alone someone in a leadership position. If someone hasn’t been as productive as you’d like, take a step back and think do they have kids at home they’re struggling with? Should I ask them how they are on a more personal level to get a conversation going? Whilst as a leader you need to make sure your team is productive, there is also a responsibility for some pastoral care. That goes for yourself too.
Be there: Again, an obvious suggestion, but communicating and having a presence is key at times like these. Whether it’s just getting a message out on Slack to let your team know you’re online and available if anyone wants to ask a question, or if you have time actively ringing and checking in with your team. Do it. They need to know now more than ever that you are there, and that your team can come to you when they need advice, guidance, or just a bit of reassurance. Yes there need to be some boundaries, but try not to bury yourself under finances or commercials and become invisible – whilst it’s easily done, and occasionally required to get your business through this, be there for your team, and they will return the favour two-fold.
Things are tough, and it’s impossible to be and do all of these things at once. You’ll have days where you feel like the world’s best boss, and others where you want to pack it all in and buy a one-way ticket to Timbuktu. Both are okay. But as long as you do your best to lead your team through this with honesty, integrity, and humility, you will come out of this with your head held high, and the respect of your team, no matter what the future holds.