In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, what do you want from your leaders?
- Empathy that dignifies your feelings or logic that dismisses them?
- Big-picture planning or one-off decisions made in haste?
- Compassion for people affected or blaming/shaming others?
- Admitting they don’t have all the answers or carelessly spreading false information?
- Regular updates and information or a retreat from public appearances?
- Forward-looking, proactive intervention or reactive, hair-on-fire panic?
- Calm, cool, collected presence or fear-mongering?
- Focus on the issues at hand or opportunistic, over-reaching power grabs?
- Practicing what they preach or exercising privileges that others don’t have?
- Unifying and uplifting messages of hope or doom-and-gloom projections?
The events of recent weeks make for an interesting study in leadership. It appears that a few world leaders haven’t been keeping up with our CONNECT2Lead series, Words to Lead by!
Character Is Revealed During Critical Incidents
The World Health Organization defines a “critical incident” as a sudden or unexpected event that’s out of the range of normal human experience. Other definitions typically define this term as an event that causes stress or is traumatic to those impacted by it.
Critical incidents test our coping mechanisms, fortitude, and resources.
The way leaders respond to critical incidents reveals their character.
Under pressure, leaders may be tempted to take shortcuts. They might try to “control the narrative” instead of transparently and accurately sharing information. Throughout history, many have made selfish choices rather than thinking broadly about the needs of others. These aren’t merely bad decisions. They’re character flaws.
Stressful situations, high stakes, and being under the spotlight bring out the best or the worst in leaders. Some rise to the occasion and instill confidence while working swiftly and effectively to mitigate damage and solve problems. Others incite panic and erode confidence as they spin-doctor and fail to create sustainable solutions.
Innate qualities, traits, and character (the topics of posts in this series) are exhibited by a leader’s outward behaviors. When things are running smoothly, a leader’s behaviors may be less visible. They may also be more easily managed or masked by advisors, front-line managers, and others who are out front. Of course, a leader’s actions may also be interpreted by individuals who wear rose-colored glasses. Our own confirmation bias and filters can get in the way of seeing a leader’s “true colors.”
Troubled times force us to look more closely. Here are three things we should be looking for from our leaders during critical incidents.
Is the leader bringing us together?
It’s not leadership if it’s dividing people, planting seeds of doubt, villainizing others, or demanding blind loyalty to figureheads or ideologies.
It’s not leadership if it’s opportunistic and self-serving. Beware the “heroes” who may, at closer look, be nothing more than smooth-talkers who say what the masses want to hear.
Leaders are connected to people before the need arises. Leaders don’t miraculously emerge to respond to a crisis. They are already there, working steadily, to improve the lives of others. They’ve already done the work to understand what people need. They’ve already connected with people and seen the potential in them.
"The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present." - Jim Kouzes
Leaders unify people by seeing their potential and their needs. They enlist others in striving toward the common good. They don’t exert pressure or misuse their influence for personal gain or nefarious, hidden agendas.
Is the leader measuring success by the impact on others?
It’s not leadership if it’s self-serving or benefiting some by hurting others.
It’s not leadership if it’s self-aggrandizing or the “leader” fails to share credit with others.
It’s not leadership if it doesn’t create opportunities for others, growth and development for others, or space for others to also lead.
Leaders don’t measure success by their own titles, accolades, or status. They don’t focus on their own personal gain. They look broadly at the impact their actions have on others. They deliberately make decisions and choose actions that benefit others in long-term, sustainable ways.
Is the leader predictable and consistent?
It’s not leadership if it’s reactive and subject to whims, circumstances, or emotions.
It’s not leadership if there’s an about face in direction.
It’s not leadership if the actions of the “leader” contradict their professed values.
Over time, leaders maintain a steady, consistent direction. They are not deterred or distracted in their pursuit of doing what’s right for their followers. A leader’s values and philosophy are clear. They’re evident in the leader’s actions. Values are deeply held, and they don’t change dramatically.
Leaders know that their predictable, steady hand provides calm in the storm.
Leadership Lasts. Titles Don’t.
Politicians are elected and subject to re-election. CEOs come and go (in record numbers in 2019!) Celebrities and athletes are influential until they’re replaced by new talent or until they fall from grace.
We may look up to people in positions like these and accept their authority or respond to their influence. But we don’t willingly and consistently follow them in our day-to-day lives. We don’t respond to them the way we do to leadership that is relevant and meaningful.
Leadership inspires us and includes us.
Leadership is about meeting the needs of followers.
Leadership builds others and equips them to become leaders in their own right.
Leadership lasts because it’s not about any one individual.
Good leaders understand that they’re only leaders because they represent ideas and change that appeal to others. They want to make a lasting difference for others and with others.
Don’t Settle for Less than the Leadership Qualities that Make Good Leaders
We seldom get to choose our leaders when we need them most. More often, critical incidents occur after we’ve already started to follow someone who’s taking us on a journey toward a desired future state.
That’s why it’s so important to choose our leaders wisely. If, in the “good times” we choose leaders who can’t be trusted in a crisis, it may be too late to make a change.
As followers, we must be discerning. We can’t succumb to charisma, influence, bandwagons, or status quo choices. We have to be thoughtful about the qualities of the people we choose to follow. If they don’t exhibit the qualities of a good leader, nothing else matters. They won’t be able to lead us. We’ll find ourselves floundering, suffering, or adversely affected.