Here's How To Lead Your Team Through Global Adversity
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Stanley McChrystal knows a thing or two about leadership. As the head of Joint Special Operations Command during the height of the fight against Al-Qaeda, he’s secured a legacy as one of the most high-profile leaders in the world. In an op-ed for the New York Times, McChrystal and former Navy Seal Chris Fussell recounted a parable about the British Royal Navy, writing that naval officers were expected to stand tall on the ship’s decks during battles, exposing themselves to enemy fire.
“It was not that little value was placed on their lives,” McChrystal and Fussell wrote. “Rather, ever greater value was placed on their leadership. Their job was to be visible to their sailors, and show calm amid the chaos.”
Before the global health crisis hit, a leader’s role — at least in the business world —was mostly to manage her teams’ operations. But in a landscape fundamentally transformed by the events of 2020, leaders must adopt a new mindset to help their teams cope. Rather than simply focusing on recovering from the trauma, we have an opportunity to grow for the better. As McChrystal and Fussell put it: “Leaders at all levels in society need to embrace the changes this crisis brings rather than struggle against it.”
Obviously, we’re not all General McChrystal — yet. But by following a few steps, we all have the capacity to be great leaders.
Empathy, empathy, empathy
A healthy dose of empathy has always been crucial for successful leaders, and that’s especially true now.
To help ensure that you’re truly putting your most empathetic foot forward, Laura K. Murray, a psychologist and scientist at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, suggests three steps: Mental awareness (imagining you are the other person), communication (what you say and how you say it), and a physical aspect (tone and gestures). When meeting with a member of your team, consider all three steps — and write them down if you have to.
“The more attention you focus on who you are speaking to and really listening to them, the more your thoughts will resonate with theirs, making the delivery of empathy easier,” she writes.
Being kind to yourself will also make it easier to be empathetic with others. And why not? You’re experiencing many of the same stresses and anxieties as the members of your team. A lot of leadership advice often focuses on quashing emotion and weathering a crisis through sheer force of will and determination. But that’s not sustainable.
“If you give some time and space for acknowledging it, you create the psychological safety that's needed to be able to get any other kind of work done," Hunkins writes.
One of the oft-repeated platitudes of the global health crisis is that “we’re all in this together.” But the phrase means little unless we’re willing to share some of what we’re experiencing with those around us.
In a story for Harvard Business Review, neuropsychologist Julia DiGangi explains that “thoughtful sharing of emotional content in safe spaces indeed leads to profound shifts in group cohesion, innovation, and performance — mostly because it offers access to unexplored ideas.”
To build trust among those who report to you, it’s incumbent on leaders to take the vulnerability plunge first. DiGangi suggests that the highest-ranking person at the table goes first, offering insight into their professional struggles and the emotional experiences that came from them.
Offering up your vulnerabilities can feel like you’re presenting yourself as a weak leader. But over the last 14 years of building my company, JotForm, I've learned that it’s the opposite. Embracing this discomfort can actually drive opportunity. As Bill Treasurer, founder of Giant Leap Consulting, tells Fast Company:
“People and organizations don’t grow in a zone of comfort; we grow, progress, and evolve in a zone of discomfort."
Be a role model
There’s no way around it — the health crisis is wreaking inordinate amounts of stress on our lives. As of July, depression and anxiety in the U.S. were at levels triple those recorded in early 2019.
While it’s one thing to tell your team that you prioritize mental health, it will mean much more if you show that you’re taking your own advice. “More often than not, managers are so focused on their team’s well-being and on getting the work done that they forget to take care of themselves,” writes Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Kroll at HBR.
Sharing that you’re taking care of your own wellbeing, be it by announcing that you’re taking a walk, signing off from email for a staycation, or having a therapy appointment will set an example for everyone else to follow.
Moreover, taking care of your mental health will enhance your ability to be a calm and deliberate leader. It’s a skill that’s come in handy during the pandemic, both for myself and those I work with. Research from the American Psychological Association finds that leaders who react to stressful events in highly emotional ways can add to people’s stress and anxiety. “People look to leaders to be calm and deliberate in their decisions and actions,” it says. “Even when facing the demands of a high-profile crisis, leaders must take breaks to reset and refocus.”
One of the striking after-effects of tragedy is the sense of community it fosters. Following the 2004 Madrid bombings, for example, one survey found that those who talked more with friends, family, and neighbors immediately after the bombings felt a heightened sense of solidarity and connection with their fellow Madrileños in the months that came after.
Unfortunately, the lack of opportunity for in-person connection is one of the defining features of the pandemic. Those casual interactions like saying “hi” in the elevator and chatting in break rooms have been largely eliminated. But that doesn’t mean creating connection isn’t possible. Jamil Zaki, a psychology professor at Stanford University, points out in the Washington Post that distancing doesn’t have to mean the destruction of human connections.
“Many of us bemoan online technologies for ripping apart our social fabric,” he writes. “Ironically, those same tools are now our best chance for holding it together.”
For leaders, this means building time into meetings for check-ins and creating peer-to-peer support networks that can help those who are struggling. But it’s also as simple as finding out how your employees are doing. An HBR study with Qualtrics and SAP found that nearly 40 percent of global employees said that no one at their company asked them if they were doing okay, and of those, 38 percent said their mental health had declined since the pandemic started.
When checking in, ask specific questions about how you can be most supportive, and really listen to the answers. You won’t always know what to say, but give your team members the space to share how they’re feeling if they want to. Knowing you’re there to support them is what really matters.