Leaders make sense of things for others, untangling knots of confusion and ambiguity. This responsibility compounds during a crisis and is even harder when you are feeling like a mess yourself!
To “un-mess” myself, I like to use a strategy that worked for me as a kid – some good old-fashioned self-talk – ala Lev Vygotsky. My grown-up version of self-talk takes the form of questions that I ask and answer myself (I only occasionally do this out loud). The good news is they’ve also worked well for my colleagues and the people I coach – and I hope they will for you too.
1. Am I keeping the mission and values central to every decision I am making? Remembering why you do the work and what you stand for–and will not stand for—are critical to good decision-making and productivity in a crisis. We all need to be grounded or anchored, and this question always gets me back to center.
2. What can I simplify at work, in my life, and for my team? Accomplishing even the simplest things can seem insurmountable when your world is turned upside down. Our economy shutting down, communications rhythms changing, and having your whole “way of working” change overnight has had pretty serious ripple effects. A strong leader works to simplify things for themselves and for their team. Doing so can focus a team and allow them to even feel motivated with newfound direction.
3. How can I work collaboratively to identify bias, blind-spots, and inequities in our decisions and work without thwarting decisiveness? Even if it isn’t within your normal mode, you’ll have to move fast to make decisions and to give direction in crisis. Acting on instinct and doing so confidently provides what seems most needed – guidance. However, our instincts are inherently biased and we have blind spots. We can’t let the need to provide guidance and decisiveness over-ride informed decision-making. Take a second, ask a trusted colleague, mentor or team-member to check your thinking and make sure it’s someone who thinks differently and is willing to challenge you.
4. How am I adding value or support during the interactions that I have? If you’re leading a team, it’s likely that you’re getting bombarded with questions or working to keep people engaged while managing your own stuff (which is very real right now). In this harried time, there’s a big risk that some of these interactions devolve into transactions. Getting things done now is important, but you have to remember that the fight against inequity is an ultra-marathon; and building team and developing people can’t be lost in all of this. Make sure that you are entering conversations and interactions with intention and aiming to add value in as many interactions as possible.
5. Am I keeping my team and those around me appropriately updated (without overwhelming them)? You are likely hearing all sorts of news from every direction – schools are staying closed; the budget situation is going from bad to worse; inequities are deepening, and trauma is reigning. As a leader you have the unenviable position of knowing all of these things. Part of your job is to keep your team updated, but appropriately: giving people the information they need to do their best, transparently, without causing undue stress or concern by sharing too much.
6. How can I consistently be straightforward about where we are and what we still don’t know while still having relentless hope about the future? Mandela taught us that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it; and Stockdale taught us that a brutal honesty about our realities paired with an unwavering confidence that we’ll prevail is key to thriving. Leaders must be clear about both the challenges we’re facing and have confidence that we’ll win in the end—because we have to. Pragmatic optimism is the key, especially in a time when, more than ever, people need the truth and hope.
Getting to clarity is hard enough to do on your own right now, much less for a team or your entire organization, but it’s sorely needed. Engaging in some disciplined reflection before or while you act will ensure that you, and more importantly, your teams and stakeholders will have a much clearer pathway forward – which is exactly what we need right now.
Special thanks to Gallup and Impact Ladder for inspiring some of these questions.