Business & Leadership

April 9, 2020

Leading courageously in turbulent times

Leading courageously in turbulent times
Dr. Nancy Koehn
Dr. Nancy Koehn

This is the defining event of the next thirty years. It is transformative. As individuals and organizations, we will be remembered for what we say and do during this crisis. Will we get bigger, stronger and more empathic toward the vulnerable or will be grow smaller, more grasping, and weaker?

Strong leaders quickly get comfortable with widespread ambiguity and chaos, recognizing that they do not have a crisis playbook. Instead, they must commit themselves and their followers to navigating point-to-point through the turbulence, adjusting, improvising, and re-directing as the situation changes and new information emerges.

Skilled leaders communicate frequently in a consistent format or medium. Regular communication, delivered with a certain level of energy and rational optimism, is vital in trying times.

Talented leaders move deftly between presenting brutal honesty and credible hope. They do not sugarcoat or exaggerate the situation. They communicate the hard, critical facts of the crisis and the obstacles and problems that result from them. At the same time, they articulate the collective strengths and resources of the people they lead, which fosters credible hope and public resolve.

They frame the stakes of the crisis, articulating what is at risk, the tradeoffs or biggest obstacles, and how we can overcome them. They also paint a picture of the future that we are all working toward.

Perceptive leaders address the fear of their followers. They know that in a volatile and dangerous environment, collective determination, solidarity, and a shared purpose among his/her team are indispensable elements of success, partly because these aspects help dial down fear.

One critical function of leadership during intense turbulence is to keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s energy and emotions and respond as needed.

But to be there for your team, you must begin with yourself. As a high-ranking executive…. So, in these trying times, take good care of yourself, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Know when you are capable of being focused and productive, and when you need a break. Eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, spend time outdoors (six feet away from strangers), connect in person with your partner, kids or animals and virtually with friends and extended family, plan for at least two device-free periods per day (of a minimum of 30 minutes each), and rely on other practices that help you get grounded.

Real leaders understand that all eyes are on them. So they consistently show up in service to the mission, using their body language, presence and words to fortify the resolve and confidence of their followers—who will, in turn, do what their leaders do, thus bolstering collective morale.

Strategic leaders focus on the likely outcomes. They do not spend a great deal of time thinking or talking about the best or the worst-case possibilities, which are lower-probability scenarios. They are aware of such outcomes, but they do not focus on them, instead concentrating on the more likely scenarios, those that lie in the middle of the spectrum.

They give their followers jobs to do. For the majority of Americans, this means sheltering in place and trying, within these parameters, to help the most vulnerable. (It also means not hoarding or giving way to mass panic.) For essential workers, this means going to work with necessary precautions and our collective gratitude.

Leaders are often lonely. Some of this loneliness flows from the responsibility leaders bear for seeing their mission through. Some of the isolation also stems from the fact that, at times, even family and close friends cannot fully grasp what a leader is dealing with--externally and internally, in terms of the path he or she was taking as they try to lead their team and organization through very tough, turbulent times. Loneliness is intrinsic to a leader's work; it can rarely be avoided or wiped away by specific action. Instead, courageous leaders learn to accept such moments of isolation, using them in service to their larger mission by keeping their own counsel, reflecting carefully on a particular issue, or grappling with their own thoughts and feelings.

Great leaders emphasize the power of community. We are always stronger together than divided. And never has that been truer than now, as we fight a silent enemy that will only be conquered when we all unite and act for the greater good of the community. One for all and all for one has never been truer than it is right now.

About Dr. Nancy Koehn

Dr. Nancy Koehn is an historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. She has coached leaders from many organizations and speaks frequently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and the World Business Forum. An accomplished author and scholar (she earned her MA and PhD degrees in history from Harvard), she spent ten years writing Forged in Crisis, her first book aimed at a popular audience. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts, and is a dedicated equestrian.

Interested in hearing more from Nancy? Our CEO, Willy Walker, hosted a webcast with her on leadership during the 2020 pandemic. Watch the webcast here.

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