7 tips for leading through troublesome times

How a leader responds in troublesome times is a measure of their mettle. It’s when their whisper comes out as a shout and is the true test of all those leadership traits we’ve been taught to emulate.

It’s a pretty relevant topic right now too. The world is grappling with a virus that we’ve never seen before sweeping the globe and affecting people and businesses virtually everywhere. If there was ever a perfect example of leading through an environment that epitomises the leadership acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) – it is facing the COVID-19 outbreak.

Leading a team through stormy waters (all the time leading yourself through those same stormy waters) requires a steady hand and a clear head.

How you handle a crisis will set the tone for how your team handles it. If you’re running around like a headless chicken, or at the other end of the scale, breezily espousing platitudes that indicate there’s “nothing here to see folks”, you’re likely to lose respect and trust with your team.

So here are seven ways to successfully lead your team through troubled waters:

1. Face reality. 

As Bill George tells us in his book, 7 Lessons for Leading in a Crisis, “face reality – starting with yourself”. This is not the time for sugarcoating, glossing over issues or misplaced optimism. At the same time, facing reality also encompasses hope and focusing on things we can do – and that’s your job as a leader.

Although facing reality is always an important leadership trait, it becomes crucial when we are leading through turbulent times.  Be honest with yourself and your team about what is happening and focus on known facts, however few there may be. Facing the truth might not be much fun, but putting your head in the sand is going to be far worse.

2. Be visible. 

And available. When things are going awry, people want to see their leaders out front, not behind closed doors. Worse, they definitely don’t want to be wondering where the heck you are.

Technology has provided lots of ways you can be visible to your people on a regular (daily, if needed) basis – from a short, personal email message to a video.  Work out who you need to be visible and accessible to during troublesome times and ensure you are communicating. Speaking of which…

3. Communicate often, candidly and clearly. 

It’s almost impossible to over-communicate during a crisis. And remember, communication is a two-way street. That means listening as well as talking!

Ironically, this is one of the most crucial times for providing an inspirational and compelling vision of a way forward. Metaphors can be your friend here. Is what you’re facing like navigating stormy seas, or like facing a mythical creature from Greek mythology? Is it like some other thing from nature? Storytelling and metaphors help people make sense, which in turn helps to lower their anxiety and fear.

4. Build a sense of control, even when it appears that so much is out of your (and their) control. 

It’s natural for people to feel powerless and worried in tough times. If you can help them move away from what they are not in control of, towards what they can do – while still creating space for people to share how they are experiencing the rough waters – you’ll help to lower anxiety.

Ask “What is within our power in this situation?” “What are our options, given X, Y and Z?” There is always something you can do when facing turbulent times, even if it’s changing your attitude to factors that are outside of your control. 

5. Model the behaviour you want others to demonstrate. 

Be the change you wish to see in others.

If you panic and get flustered, others will likely follow. Conversely, if you react with the calmness of a swan – even though beneath the water you’re paddling like crazy – this will have a flow-on effect.  I bet if I asked you who you’d turn to in a personal crisis, the person you think of comes across as calm and pragmatic, not flustered and freaking out.

6. Collaborate – think “leadership”, not leader. 

This is not the time to go it alone or try to lead in isolation. Think about who gives you good advice and a sounding board when you are in the thick of it? How can you access a diverse, trusted team to help you lead through volatile times or a complex problem? What sources of information are reputable and trustworthy for your current situation?

7. Look after yourself. 

Simple things like exercising, getting enough sleep and doing things that make you happy or enable you to take time out are imperative in times like this – even (and especially) when you think you “don’t have time.” You won’t be able to lead others through this tough time if you can’t first lead yourself.

What tips do you have for leading during tough times? I’d love to hear what you have to say, so comment below.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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