“My husband is laughing and making a video of me while I do this dance,” said a senior team member over a Zoom virtual party we had for our company. Having a lack of more interesting ideas for fun; I suggested that we do a co-ordinated jive over music. After the call, I sent this dance video snippet to my co-founder who wasn’t on the call, only for him to reply “I don’t know if I should feel 😅 or 😢”

Ironically, as a leader I feel the same way these days. Conflicted, uncertain and (given the dance moves) unafraid to be silly.

The stress test of leadership is here

Look, it’s brutal today if you’re a leader. It would certainly help bring clarity to look at some of the overly-capitalist and selfish leadership we are witnessing these days.

“Tom Colicchio Spent 19 Years Building a Restaurant Empire. Coronavirus Gutted It in a Month”, writes Aaron Gell. Colicchio is more than just a celebrity chef. He is considered a pioneer in the New York food scene and employed nearly 300 people.

Recently he laid off most of his employees during the coronavirus lockdown in NYC and while he did that gracefully, it still begs the question; how is it that a multi-million-dollar restaurant czar in the trendiest cities on earth not plan for contingencies like these?

I find myself often in the centre of the four-arrows (sorry off-white) being pulled in all directions trying to manage all opposite forces of cash, people, (company) survival and personal needs. Perhaps our biggest test as leaders yet is upon us.

Communication is great, but far from enough

The reign of the charming, articulate leader is under threat. Especially in the echelons of the big-hairy-corporate-jungle where words like care, empathy and inclusiveness are so loosely used that they could very well be part of a drinking game in a company town-hall. “Did he say empathy again? Shots everyone!”

It’s easy to slip into pseudo leadership these days. You know that kind where you have rehearsed how a difficult conversation will go and yet you don’t come out feeling good. Deep down inside, you know you were peddling poorly concocted BS to someone who wasn’t even near your equal.

If you’re having this gut wrenching feeling, you’re not alone. It’s hard to make sense of priorities when things look like a menagerie straight from The Tiger King.

What true leadership in crisis means

Self-awareness about your own leadership is crucial right now. Rajeev Peshawaria, a leadership strategist has done an excellent job building an awareness model for all leaders, he calls it the Covidian Response Matrix; which frankly I would keep handy for all crisis situations in the future.

He divides the matrix into four quadrants between Low to High readiness and Negative/No Action to Positive action. Each quadrant defines a leadership response. It would be worth reflecting on this before we create any kind of guidance system for us as leaders. The key learning here is that positive action has to be coupled together with crisis readiness.

When I saw this, it made it clear to me that in a crisis, just doing the right thing or saying it is far from enough. Leaders have to prepare themselves with the right skills and knowledge to make this jump from being a ‘Caring Fool’ who only takes positive action without being prepared to a ‘True Leader’ who successfully does both.

While SMB entrepreneurs may find themselves in the caring fool quadrant, it is more likely that a leader in a large enterprise lands in the ‘Calculating opportunist’ — high crisis readiness with no action. Since global companies usually have the access to information which smaller entrepreneurs lack, leaders in enterprises are better prepared. In that case, you may have a different problem; to actually make positive decisions. The tentacles of corporate bureaucracy may be squeezing your guts.

Just because you were appointed a leader doesn’t mean you are leading. Making decisions in a large company seems straightforward, since most decisions are handed down without actually practising thought-inclusiveness.

Positive leadership rests on this one key element 

“The problem in this company is that everyone wants to get a written confirmation about even the smallest decisions we make,” said a global CXO to me once. I wondered why this culture (or lack of) would exist in a Fortune xxx listed company. You see the lack of positive action creates a culture of mistrust. Every man for himself, people left to quietly suffer inaction in the wild westworld eventually revolt; imploding even the most carefully planned and executed organisations.

It’s very easy to spot the culture of mistrust. Let’s do a test, here are the questions to ask yourself :

  • Do people quietly agree to everything you say in meetings or calls?
  • Do you see people comfortable in micro-groups; always seen with the same people?
  • Did you have a case of one rotten apple in the team and were shocked why this person behaved so badly while everyone else falls in line always?

If the answers to these questions are definitive ‘yes’, then I hate to break this to you but we need a leadership intervention for you. You have failed to create a culture where people fully trust you with their opinions and when someone breaks apart she is labelled as a bad apple.

Our most important role as a leader is to build an environment where people can feel safe. This is the single most important reason why we have leaders; this was the reason we had leaders when we were cavemen; we even stuck to our leaders even when they were self-indulgent aristocrats and this is what we expect from our larger-than-life billion-dollar-funded-sexy-entrepreneurs today.

Other than preparedness for crisis and positive action; a safe environment for our people can be built on transparency. You cannot ask to be trusted if you are not going to be transparent about your decisions. People are much smarter than we give them credit for usually and if we do decide to hold any information back from them then the only reason for that should be to protect them. This is the ultimate leadership paradox.