Being a leader not a cheerleader. 

Week 4 of lockdown and, for many of us, we’re through the initial phase of practical coping; setting up a home-based office, getting the technology to work, getting used to on-line team meetings – and now the leadership challenge is more about the need for emotional coping strategies for ourselves and our teams to sustain us all on the long road ahead.

Reflecting on the lessons learned from colleagues and clients in the last 10 days they group into two categories, listening to your team – and listening to yourself.

Listening to your team

  • Just because we’re all in the same situation at a global pandemic level doesn’t mean that your team members are all experiencing the same personal challenges on a daily basis. So, listening to people one-to-one and giving them time to express their fears and their frustrations is perhaps the most important role you can play as a leader.
  • Leaders will benefit from paying much more attention to the context in which each of your team members are working, a context that will be very different from normal times – their responses to any work-related problems are likely to be affected by their immediate surroundings, the pressures they feel in the moment and their resultant mood.
  • As a consequence of this you need to think carefully about leadership contingency – at a number of levels, for example;
    • Expect that in any project or leadership team several people will be off sick or unable to work at full capacity over the next 6 months – have deputies for every role and build extra resource contingency into the most important projects
    • And don’t assume you can easily have a 5 minute call to sort out a practical problem and start with a cheery ‘how are you doing’ greeting to a colleague. You need to be prepared to listen empathetically to what might be a significant change in health or circumstances – and so prepare for these calls appropriately.

Listening to yourself

  • The idea of developing your own coping strategies can sound like an excuse to avoid the big issues – but in these extraordinary circumstances having you own familiar ways of coping with the personal pressures of the day is a pre-requisite for leading others. So, be aware of the coping strategies that work for you, savour them and write yourself a reminder to use them regularly.
  • Don’t feel a pressure to be positive and optimistic all the time – listen to your own emotions. There are many levels of loss to cope with as a leader in this situation – loss of some dreams for the business, loss of possibilities to grow, and tragically loss of friends and colleagues in some cases. Of course, there are opportunities too – and there will come the right time to seize them and to enthuse others with new ideas for the future. But in the meantime you also need to take what time you need to cope and to grieve when you need to.
  • The best way to motivate your team, and the wider organisation, is to be honest with your own emotions and in so doing to give others the permission to be open with theirs too. You can feel sad, perhaps angry at times, but also willing to learn and to be hopeful too.
  • And finally – whilst it’s good to listen to yourself you still need to find ways for your team to push back and to challenge you. There is something about the unfamiliarity or the technology of online communication that seems to make it harder for people to challenge their boss – so as a leader find tactics to invite debate and encourage people to express counter views.