Thoughts on Leadership: Leading through Uncertainty

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me exactly where you are – home, in virtual meetings and conference calls as we take the current situation with COVID-19 one step at a time, one day at a time and as a collective, working together to find solutions for a brighter tomorrow.

During this time of uncertainty, I’m reminded of a particular lesson I learned several years ago while attending a leadership training conducted by my friend Tom McCarthy, who spoke to a group of 1,000 people about the positive and negative emotional impact leaders can have on their teams.

During the session, a woman raised her hand and asked to speak. She said she was a pediatrician and immediately following medical school, her first assignment was in the pediatric oncology ward. After working there a few months, she and the other doctors could actually predict the children who would respond well to the treatment and those who wouldn’t. Even more interesting still, she said she could predict this within moments of meeting the child and his or her parents.

What did she observe to make this prediction?

She said she looked to the parents, the proverbial leader of the child, and how they responded to the health crisis. Some parents arrived understandably distraught, stressed out, in despair with little hope for their son or daughter’s future. Other parents came to the doctor courageous, confident and optimistic their child could handle whatever treatment was necessary. The doctor said one of the most telling factors to forecast the success of the child was the emotional energy and mindset of the parents.

It was an incredible example of the power of psychology to achieve and overcome. Tom said while we aren’t parents to our team members, we are—like the doctor’s story—the leaders our team members rely on during a crisis. When we remain resilient and strong there’s a rallying effect and that strength is transferred to those we lead.

A recent article published by the American Psychological Association explained that psychologists’ research shows “people look to leaders to be calm and deliberate in their decisions and actions.” Additionally, even when confronted with the demands of “a high-profile crisis, leaders must take breaks to reset and refocus.”

Human beings are wired to respond to certainty and connection, two aspects of our current existence that are severely lacking. What’s taking place in cities large and small across the globe is something we’ve never seen before. It’s the “I remember when …” moment we’ll talk about for decades, and we’re living through it right now.

The missing link between uncertainty and decisiveness, between a lack of connection and unity, is leadership. Through clear and consistent communication, we can impact the ability of our team members to navigate this complex situation.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Remember to take care of yourself and your family. You are probably busier than ever, working what I like to call “half days” (12 hours) to build action plans and execute. It’s still important to maintain your daily routine as much as you can because you can’t lead if you aren’t feeling physically and emotionally up to the task. I often speak to teams about creating an unstoppable mindset and routine. Now more than ever is the time to maintain those daily habits. (In a March report by McKinsey & Company on leadership in crisis, the global management consulting firm stated: “What leaders need during a crisis is … behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead.” Focus on the continual improvement for your business and yourself. Be sure to take your M.E.D.S.: Meditation, Exercise, Diet and S As Tom Ferry said in his latest vlog, “How we feel on the inside radiates to the people on the outside.” If you’re frustrated because your gym isn’t open, find exercise influencers on Instagram and take a yoga or cardio class. You can even do a Zoom session with a colleague or friend and exercise together. If you need a few minutes to recharge, listen to your favorite audiobook or podcast. If you get more than seven hours of sleep a night, your brain can detoxify and wind down on a daily basis. As Dale Carnegie once said, “You can conquer almost any fear if you will only make up your mind to do so. For remember, fear doesn’t exist anywhere except in the mind.”
  2. In the spirit of overcommunication, you might notice this post is twice as long as a normal blog but again, overcommunication is necessary right now. Emotional states take effort to shift toward optimism. Even if a team is positive one day, a new headline can emerge, or a new problem can arise, and emotional optimism takes a nosedive. As the American Psychology Association explains, “When communication stops, people are prone to imagine the worst.” To keep positivity high, consider:
    • Morning and afternoon “meetings.” When we first founded Intero, I used to meet my founding partners every morning in person at a designated conference room and asked each of them in turn: “What are you doing today?” We’d go around the room until everyone had quickly responded. To wrap up the meeting, I’d say: “We’ll see you back here at 5 p.m. and you can tell me what you did.” You can mimic this same structure with phone calls instead of in-person meetings. Each day, check-in with your team and each afternoon, track the progress of the tasks they committed to completing.
    • Double down on your influencers and rising stars and check in with those who might need extra comfort and care. Every organization has influential employees who are universally respected and trusted. Engage with those team members now because they’ll be your biggest advocates and ambassadors to imbue positivity throughout your business. Also, be sure you’re in constant communication with your rising stars because they’ll be strategic allies as you create tactics for success. Finally, if there’s anyone on your team who is particularly impacted—stay-at-home parents homeschooling their kids, for instance—make sure you give due attention to them, so they feel supported, too.
  1. Control the narrative, don’t let the narrative control you. Every member of your team is right now constructing and changing the story in their minds about how this will play out. Some of those stories are positive, some aren’t. If you can control the narrative, you can control the way your team members frame the situation. Your story should be future-focused, a message of strength and resilience. After all, we are strong. We are resilient. We are confident in conquering this together.
  2. Facilitate a compassionate institutional response. In a Harvard Business Review article, “Leading in Times of Trauma,” the publication emphasizes that leaders during crisis should create a compassionate response on two levels:
  • Context for meaning. The leader should create an environment—in this case, virtually—for team members to freely express and discuss how they feel, “which in turn helps them to make sense of their pain, seek or provide comfort, and imagine a more hopeful future,” explains Harvard Business Review. By keeping lines of communication open and honest, you can foster this level of compassion.
  • Context for action. A leader should create an environment in which those who experience pain or anxiety can find ways to alleviate this worry. You can collect “work from home” photos and share them with your team. You can also organize a virtual company event or an initiative to raise money for a local charity. Whatever outlet you can devise to lessen stress will create room for more positivity and well-being among your team.

So, what’s the message? We’ve faced hardships before, we’ll probably face them again but this, right now, is our opportunity to use the power of our collective minds, our shared positivity and our industry-wide strength. Even if we can’t step out, each day is an opportunity to step up and lead.

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