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Leadership in volatile times

03 June 2020

A blog post by Debbie Wilshire, Lead facilitator, AoC Senior Leadership Development Programme

Back in February, which seems a world away now, I wrote a blog about authentic leadership. One of the quotes I used was from Dr. Brene Brown, who describes authenticity as:

The daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.

Leading our colleges over the past few months has seen Principals, CEOs and senior leaders rising to the most extraordinary challenges. One of the fascinating aspects of leading through a crisis is that we all have a tendency to revert to type. Whatever way in which we may present our leadership styles and practices in ‘normal’ times, when the pressure is really on we become more clearly ‘who we are’. Our best features become even better and those aspects that can be less effective can become harder to manage. We also discover new aspects – like how brave we can be or how much we need other people around us.

What is your leadership style?

If our leadership style is already authoritative and we are naturally able to give a sense of purpose, those features become even more valuable at times of strain and uncertainty. The potential downside to those traits is if we become over-controlling; our proper concern with ‘getting it right’ and driving the organisation forwards may make us use too much ‘transmit’ and not enough listening.

Similarly, if our leadership strength is in nurturing our people and building teams, we have probably been especially effective in keeping our colleagues connected and supported and we have learned how to use social media platforms to keep the team spirit alive. Less productively, we may be so concerned about the people dynamic that we have got ‘stuck’ when it comes to making timely decisions; wanting to do the right thing by our colleagues may lead to sacrificing the ‘good decision’ in pursuit of the ‘perfect decision’.


The importance of pressing the pause button

On the AoC Senior Leadership Development Programme (SLDP) we talk about ‘pressing the pause button’ – making ourselves stop and think about how we are leading, how we assess our impact and what we could do better. That’s hard to do at the best of times – work is always so busy. At this time, when we are all dealing with so much uncertainty and complexity, pressing the pause button can seem like a luxury rather than a necessity. Whilst waiting until we reach ‘the other side’ to reflect on what we are all learning about leadership during this period will be useful, taking time and energy to reflect as we go will provide insights we may otherwise miss.

The change model ‘start, more, less, stop’ can give us a fairly quick mechanism for reflection. Usually, the model is used when planning ahead. With a little adaptation we can use it as we go.

Normally this model asks the following questions:

Bearing in mind you/your organisation’s core purpose and/or strategy……

  • What new activities/behaviours should we start?
  • What existing activities/behaviours should we be doing more of?
  • What existing activities/behaviours should we be doing less of?
  • What existing activities/behaviours should we stop?

In order to assess how we are doing at the moment, we can adjust these questions a little to ensure we learn from the past few months:

As a senior leader

  • What new activities/behaviours have I started?
  • What existing activities/behaviours am I doing more?
  • What existing activities/behaviours am I doing less?
  • What existing activities/behaviours have I stopped?

With the critical follow up question – and how has this improved or lessened my leadership impact?

For example, most of us are using online platforms to communicate with each other. This may have been a ‘start’ activity or a ‘much more’. The question is, how has this impacted on my leadership? I find that the online communication vehicle itself tends to support being task focused and providing clarity of objectives. Therefore, those of us who have those leadership traits anyway have felt pretty comfortable using Zoom/Teams etc.

I find it harder however to ‘read the room’ and pick up on the unspoken communication that we all spot when physically present. Dr Mehrabian proposed that the words we use are just a fraction of the communication process. The three elements broke down as follows:

  • 7% spoken words
  • 38% voice, tone
  • 55% body language

Whether that exact breakdown is right, it is a useful reminder that for most of us we pick up significant messaging from behaviours other than the actual words used. I have heard from several clients over recent weeks that alongside Zoom [or similar] team meetings, they have been doing a lot of one-to-one online discussions; often more than they would have done face to face in pre-Covid ‘normality’. This is partly driven by a recognition that large group virtual meetings do not make it easy to understand what participants are really thinking or feeling; even the more emotionally intelligent leaders are struggling. It has been interesting to discover how this is impacting on their effectiveness as leaders and to discuss whether it is a discipline that will be continued.

Pressing the pause button, asking questions, making judgments about what’s working better and why – this takes time, and that even more precious commodity; energy. I suggest that the learning we all get during volatile times is uniquely valuable and worth tracking as we go.

Stay safe and explore…

For more information on the AoC Senior Leadership Development Programme visit here.