This is What TRUSTworthy Leadership Looks Like in Turbulent Times
As I write this in mid-April 2020, it appears that here in the United States we may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several areas in the country are starting to report a decrease in the number of new infections, which mirrors the experience of several countries around the world. I hesitate to even think we may be on the downhill side of this journey, because a lesson I’ve re-learned many times this year is to hold my assumptions about the future very lightly. The Yiddish proverb that “man plans, God laughs” rings true.
This experience has proven to be a crucible for many leaders. It’s caused them to re-think what it means to be an effective leader, not just in times of crisis, but in everyday life. Crisis has a way of stripping away all the extraneous things in life we believe to be important but really aren’t. Challenging times function as a refining fire, peeling away the impurities of our lives and distilling us down to the bare essence of what we truly need. In respect to leadership, the core element upon which everything else is built is TRUST.
Here’s a picture of what TRUSTworthy leadership looks like in turbulent times—and, as it turns out, it looks like this in “normal” (whatever that ends up being) times, too.
Information is the currency of trust in turbulent times. As we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions change rapidly. What’s true today may not be true tomorrow. Leaders make decisions one day that may need to be undone the next. Trustworthy leaders keep their teams informed by sharing information candidly, openly, and regularly. They don’t hide or spin the truth out of fear for how people may receive it. They resist the urge to control the flow of information and lean in to being vulnerable and authentic with their teams. Regarding the powerful effect of leaders showing vulnerability to their teams, Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines has said, “People admire your strengths, but they respect your honesty regarding your vulnerability.”
A simple definition of resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” Resilient leaders balance optimism with a sobering dose of reality. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins popularized the concept of the “Stockdale Paradox.” Based on the experience of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War, Collins described resilient leaders as ones who can “retain faith that they will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of their current reality, whatever they might be.” Leaders who maintain this perspective build trust with others. Their team members know the leader is shooting straight with them about the harsh realities they face, and the leader maintains optimism that those challenges will be overcome with perseverance.
Leaders build trust in uncertain times when they take time to understand . . . not just know, but truly understand . . . the tone, climate, temperature, mood, and morale of the team. People are emotionally fragile right now, so understanding leaders respond with empathy and patience. Fast-changing conditions prevent perfect answers, so understanding leaders respond with wisdom and discernment. Every leader has their personal limits, and those who understand that respond with self-grace and forgiveness. A little bit of understanding goes a long way in building trust in turbulent times.
Turbulent times scream for leaders to be calm, steady, consistent, and reasoned in their approach to management. Team members want to be reassured that their leader is maintaining a level head amidst the craziness. They want to have confidence that although the leader may not have all the answers, they aren’t freaking out over the circumstances. Leaders set the emotional tone for how the team will respond. I’m reminded of the movie Remember the Titans, a story about the racial integration of a Virginia high school and its football team in the early 1970’s. Once particular scene involving Gerry, the white captain of the team, and Julius, one of the star black players, centers on Gerry calling out Julius for his poor attitude. Lest Gerry think all the blame lays at Julius’ feet, Julius reminds him that his and the team’s “attitude reflects leadership, captain.” What does your team’s attitude reflect about your leadership?
Do you want to know what your people want most from you during these turbulent times? You. They want you. Time with you. They want your presence. Yes, they want direction, support, encouragement, empathy, vision, steadiness, boldness, and many other things. But most of all, they want you. And that involves time. If your team has had to switch to remote work like many others have done during the COVID-19 pandemic, they no longer have the benefit of those random hallway encounters with you. They don’t see you in the break room during lunch, or in the parking lot before and after work. So that means you need to make the time to be extra visible. Maintain regular one-on-one meetings with your team members, and leverage Zoom meetings, phone calls, text messages, and even handwritten notes sent via snail mail. Whatever it takes to be present for your team is worth it, but it starts with you carving out the time to make it happen.
Trustworthy leadership is needed every day, not just during times of turbulence and uncertainty.
In the spirit of “never letting a good crisis go to waste,” use this time to hone your skills as a trustworthy leader. Be transparent in your communications, model resilience for your team, respond to team members with understanding, exhibit steadiness in your leadership, and devote the personal time needed to foster high-trust relationships. It will not only lead your team through this crisis, it will set them up for long-term success in the future.