Five Actions Leaders Should Take In Times Of Uncertainty
Having a vision for the post-pandemic is key for bringing optimism and motivating people around us.
Company leaders are probably not having fun right now. We live in difficult and uncertain times. Decreasing revenues have led administrators to reduce costs drastically, sometimes cutting jobs, or slashing salaries. Managers and C-level executives find themselves in a very undesirable position of making tough and painful decisions that have serious effects on other people’s lives.
On the other hand, we know well that uncertain times call for great leadership. Strong, effective leaders are individuals who possess a rare set of qualities that enable them to attract talent, build consensus, and bring people together, while at the same time being assertive, delivering effective results, and “getting things done.” This apparent unusual combination of charisma and firmness is what enables people to lead teams and make an impact or positive change in the world, and it is key in navigating through challenging situations.
Here I present a practical approach to leadership styles for managers, C-level executives, and everyone who is responsible for leading people and organizations, offering a dual model of executive leadership that can help overcome testing times like these.
According to professors Brian Leggett and Conor Neill from IESE Busines School, this new “leadership toolkit” consists of a set of qualities that can be divided into two major categories, known as the Magnet and the Hammer. The Magnet comprises all the virtues that create a pull force, such as attracting the right people to the team through charismatic speaking, motivating employees by casting a compelling vision for the company/project/future, listening to team members, and being open to criticism, while the Hammer delivers all the qualities that help create a push force, in other words, the abilities that move people to action, like setting metrics, making strategic plans, establishing deadlines, giving orders, and (eventually) issuing threats.
We could thus summarize the twin pillars of leadership in two sets of characteristics- “hammer actions” would thus include the following:
- Develop a strategic plan
- Set metrics
- Establish deadlines
- Issue orders (even threats if necessary)
- Create a reward system
While “magnet actions” could be listed as follows:
- Speak charismatically
- Cast an inspiring vision
- Lead by example
- Be open for dialogue and criticism
Using the twin pillars of leadership model, I propose a few specific actions for leaders tailored to our challenging times:
1. Learn from history This is not the first pandemic in history, and it certainly will not be the last. History repeats itself, and we should be wise enough to learn from it. How have great leaders acted during times of plague? The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote the classic leadership book, Meditations (which is actually his personal journal, where he shares his thoughts and dilemmas as the leader of the largest empire of his time), had to lead Rome and its people during the Antonine Plague. People in Rome thought he was not cut out for the job, but he actually rose to the occasion. He stayed in Rome when he could easily and justifiably have fled to a safer, isolated palace. He surrounded himself with the best servants, searched and selected the best talent for his staff, instead of doing it in the “wasta” way by bringing friends and aristocrats. He listened to advice and empowered people in decision-making positions. He assigned Galen, the most famous physician and scientist back then, to lead the efforts to combat the pandemic. He took action (hammer), and led by example (magnet).
2. Establish a strategic plan Action plans based on a solid vision help reduce uncertainty and lead people to action in the right direction. Employees and teams are willing to hear from their managers about “what’s the plan,” what should they be doing to take the company to a better, safer place. Uncertainty is one of the main causes of stress and anxiety at work. The unknown future increases the feelings of powerlessness and fragility, while having a plan, no matter how tough it might be, makes the team face reality, and prepare for what lies ahead, giving them hope and more control over their lives and their future.
3. Craft a vision for the post-pandemic, and communicate it No matter how much suffering we all might be going through at this moment, at some point in the future, this crisis will be over. Part of the solution is out of our hands, but a large part of it depends on our vision for the future and how we want to shape it. Having a vision for the post-pandemic is key for bringing optimism and motivating people around us. What are the future opportunities in my industry? What are the benefits that this new reality can bring to people’s lives? What are people’s wants and needs during and after COVID-19? Along with a solid vision, a leader must be able to communicate it strongly and effectively to their team. Having a clear message that can be communicated to others creates that pull force (magnet) that generates trust in the team, and brings people together to accomplish a common goal.
4. Allocate time for self-development The current pandemic has limited social activities, and many people have experienced long periods of solitude and reflection. Again, history shows us that great leaders have flourished and revealed themselves as such during times of forced isolation. Less time for social activities should mean more time for focusing on self-development and learning. Going back to school to join a graduate or executive program is one of many good ways to acquire knowledge and network with professionals from different sectors. Drafting a structured and consistent reading plan for the year will also help avoid slacking and binge-watching, which sometimes end up consuming most of our free time. We should do our best to work on our self-development, which will have a direct impact on our team and the people around us. As Harry S. Truman once said: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”
5. Time is our best teacher I often hear from many executives whom I meet during my teaching or consulting activities that “one of the most challenging things at work is managing people.” They are probably right: leading people and teams and being responsible for producing effective change and positive results is hard. Assuming a leadership role is at the end of the day one of the hardest things we can undertake in our personal and professional lives. Yet, positive leadership is also very rewarding. It is an exercise of patience, commitment, and care. Most importantly, it is something that is developed over time, by experiencing positions of management and leadership, both professionally as well as personally. One learns to lead by practicing it in different spheres of life, and will only find his or her own voice, and fully develop both sides of their leader’s persona by seeking opportunities to lead and move out of their comfort zone.
Pedro Sellos (Ph.D) is the founding program director of the M.A. in Leadership and Innovation in Contemporary Media at the American University of Dubai. He has managed numerous programs for creative industries professionals in different countries, both at graduate and executive levels, and has worked as consultant for medium and large family-owned media companies in Europe and Latin America. He is a member of the Dubai Future Council on Media, one of the 13 Dubai Future Councils, chaired by H.E. Mona Al Marri.