Monday, February 6, 2023
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What Crisis Can Teach Us About Ourselves As Leaders

It’s easy to see our current circumstances as being outside of the scope of normal events, and thus everything we do as being unrelated to who we are within our typical existences. There’s an ethos on offer from many that we should all do what we need to in order to get through this crisis, and if that means eating an entire party-size bag of chips in one sitting (just as a completely random example and definitely not pulled from any actual experience) then you should be free to do so for the duration of the ongoing crisis, however long that may last. The argument is not so much that nothing we do at the moment counts (the calories certainly do) but rather that we should loosen the restrictions we place upon ourselves in trying to deal with the stress we’re all feeling.

While it’s true that the coronavirus pandemic and the measures put in place because of it are far outside anything most of us have ever experienced, it’s arguably not the case that we ourselves are similarly changed during this period. We’re only ever who we are as people or leaders or entrepreneurs, and times of crisis can only serve to heighten or reveal the characteristics that are fundamentally us. 

What happens to us during this time, and how we react to it, can tell us a lot about who we are, in ways we wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, and it’s worth thinking about those reactions in evaluating who we are and who we want to be moving forward. Taking a pause and allowing ourselves some space to reflect is critical as this pandemic is becoming more of a triathlon than a marathon.

During a crisis, people look towards leadership for a steady hand on the wheel, and in the absence of that, panic and fear will set in as people worry about their job and their ability to care for themselves and their family. For founders, it’s a leadership challenge unlike any other; your business may have persevered through hard times before, but it’s rarely the case that you’ve had to navigate both a health crisis and a global recession at the same time. What can you say and do to assuage your team, and how can you handle the uncertainty that is unavoidable at the present? 

We assume that people want to hear the best possible version of things, the sunniest interpretation of the situation, but the truth is that tact can backfire tremendously in the face of a reality that comes nowhere near matching those rosy projections. While it’s tempting to try and keep spirits up within your team by shielding them from bad news, it only makes the eventual consequences that much worse if they seemingly came out of the blue. Everyone is aware of the challenges mounting around the world, and simply want the honest truth so that they can deal with it as they need to. We are all weary of bad news but a surprise can be worse.

It’s also the case that we might want to attempt to block out the darkness, to somehow try and force a sort of tunnel vision that blocks out the negativity that exists all around in an effort to focus on the task at hand. While you don’t want your workdays to become sessions for your team to vent frustrations over Teams, Slack or Zoom, you do have to give people the freedom to feel the stress of the situation and to try and work through it in the best way they can. Perhaps for some work is a safe space away from the stress of the news, and that’s great, but there has to be an understanding that for many there isn’t that easy demarcation between the parts of their life, particularly when so many are still stuck at home. 

The burden of leadership is that we can’t give free reign to our own feelings, no matter how much we may want to let loose. We can vent our own frustration, sure, but we can’t appear to be without purpose or a plan, even at a time when we’re all unable to control what happens in the world around us. People need direction and a goal to work towards, even if it’s small and short-term, and offering that gives the small amount of structure that we all need in our lives when everything else seems to be unmoored. 

These are circumstances you hope to avoid as a founder, but there are no guarantees when you go into business for yourself; quite the opposite, in fact, as difficult issues and tough choices are all but assured for entrepreneurs. Leadership isn’t easy, else everyone would seek it out. But you’ve chosen this path for yourself, and now a pandemic has given you the chance to see what your mettle is as a leader during the economic crisis; hopefully, you find yourself up to the challenge. I would be interested in hearing from entrepreneurs who have some lessons to share with others about leading today – reach out on Linkedin or @maryjuetten on Twitter. #onwards.

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