As I approach four decades of leading organizations under challenging circumstances in numerous leadership positions, in both the private and public sector, I can assure you that challenges, obstacles, and difficult times are inevitable. Being a good leader during times of ‘smooth sailing’ is easy, but when a crisis occurs, that’s when your leadership skillsets are truly tested. Throughout my career, the leaders I have admired most acted similarly at all times; the point is, being a good leader requires a skillset of composure, preparation, adaptability, and optimism that are translatable from day-to-day tasks to an extraordinary crisis. I have never experienced a poor leader who suddenly becomes a good leader during crisis.
This shared insight is because I firmly believe there is no substitute for building a solid leadership foundation that is the base of your organization. This consists of creating a valued-based culture, building personal and professional relationships with your employees, and instilling trust within your team. Quality leaders recognize employees as real people, creating strong relationships built on mutual gratitude and respect. These essential leadership qualities are central to communicating an issue to your employees and stakeholders with integrity, which will translate into how efficient your messages are received during a time of high-stress and urgency. During crises, messages need to be delivered in ways that are easy to understand, concisely outline of the options available to address the situation, and show self-awareness to express compassion for those impacted by the situation. Perception is reality, and how your employees perceive you daily will have a tremendous impact on how they respond to you during a critical time of need. Remember, your employees are your most valuable asset.
Through my experiences, I have learned to look for leaders that have an enhanced self-awareness (often referred to as emotional intelligence) as a prerequisite to effective leadership; in essence, you must be able to see people and changing environments through different lenses. Through enhanced self-awareness, leaders can be more adaptive, resilient, and accepting of feedback, and be open to change.
A mentor of mine frequently refers to these leadership qualities as the building of muscle memory. Why is building muscle memory crucial? Simply stated, a leader who fails to exercise these leadership characteristics and qualities routinely fails to exercise them when truly tested. Moreover, the development of muscle memory goes far beyond the leader learning these skills. It requires taking active responsibility for training staff as well. Organizations must develop these qualities and characteristics through your example, training and well-earned influence.
When faced with falling short of stated goals or making mistakes along the way, I reflect on a watershed event early in my career. A compelling statement was made to me by a well-recognized leader after I made an unintentional error in a political setting of significant consequence. I was asked: “What did you learn today as a result of your experience?” After detailing my learned insight with great remorse, she stated: “Then you are more valuable to me and this organization today than you were yesterday.” These few but profound words of redemption have remained etched in my belief system, further emphasizing the role of good leaders in building muscle memory of what it means to be a good leader in difficult times.