Thoughts on Leadership: Effective Leadership in Challenging Times

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me at home, just as you are. And while we’re at home we can still work diligently on creating better versions of ourselves and honing our abilities to lead. I’ve been listening to a great book, “The Leadership Challenge” by James M. Kouzes (Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University) and Barry Z. Posner (Dean of Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University). The book is now in its sixth edition and the book is so good that every time a new edition came out, I started from the beginning and re-listened to it. In fact, the ideas put forth by Kouzes and Posner about effective leadership during challenging times have never been more applicable.

To function at the highest level of productivity and maintain this level of productivity over an extended period of time, people need encouragement. And the amount of encouragement necessary to inspire your team becomes exponentially more important when the hours are long, the tasks are daunting, and the work is hard. By uplifting spirits, you tap into your team members’ internal drive to excel, no matter how difficult the situation is around them. As the authors explain, “You help people find the courage to do things that they have never done before.”

As outlined in “The Leadership Challenge,” here are a few proven tactics for inspiring your team:

Expect the best. The greatest leaders firmly believe in the ability of their team members to achieve the hardest tasks and most challenging goals. “Positive expectations profoundly influence not only your constituents’ aspirations, but also, often unconsciously, how you behave toward them,” the authors write. When you program the non-conscious portion of your brain to believe in the expertise and ability of your team members, all your thoughts and actions will spring forth from this truth that you’ve internalized. You’ll give off unspoken cues that alert your team members of your unwavering belief in their abilities. Social psychologists refer to this as the “Pygmalion Effect,” named after a sculptor in Greek mythology who carved a statue of a woman, fell in love with the statue, and asked Aphrodite to bring the statue to life, which according to the story, she did. When you believe in the ability of your team and know they can accomplish anything, it becomes, like a statue brought to life through sheer will, a self-fulfilling prophesy. Believe you lead a team of winners and your team will always win.

Set clear expectations. The authors refer to the memorable croquet match from “Alice in Wonderland” as an example of the importance of setting expectations. In the scene, flamingos were the mallets and playing-card soldiers were the wickets and the balls were hedgehogs. During the course of the game, rules kept changing, which made it difficult to know how to play the game and impossible to figure out how to win. By being clear with your expectations, you’ll avoid going down a rabbit hole of confusion. Although your team is working remotely, you can still set the guidelines for what you expect them to achieve. In last week’s blog post we covered the importance of quick, early morning check-in meetings and afternoon recap meetings. These virtual meetings can also be critical mile markers for the expectations you’ve set for your team as you work through difficulties together. “Believing that people can succeed is only part of the equation,” explains Kouzes and Posner. “If you want people to give it their all, to put their hearts and minds into their work, you must also make certain that people know what they are supposed to be doing.” Now more than ever, as confusion can easily take hold, establish clearly defined roles and commitments. These expectations will create a set of standards for all team members so unlike the flamingos and the playing-card soldiers, everyone knows the rules of the game and what it takes to win.

Add feedback to the equation. The next layer of effective leadership amid challenges is to provide regular feedback. People need to know not only what the rules of the game are but also where they stand at any given time. “Their motivation to perform a task increases only when they have a challenging goal and receive feedback on their progress,” the authors note. A goal without feedback or feedback without goals render both concepts meaningless. The book references a global study of 1,000+ organizations in more than 150 countries, finding that about one-third of employees had to wait three months or more to receive feedback and almost two-third of employees wished they had received more feedback from their colleagues. Feedback can happen whether you’re in person or your team is functioning remotely. Make sure that on any given day and during any given Zoom or Google Hangouts meeting, your team members know how they’re doing and what steps they can take to improve. Feedback is at the heart of all learning processes and learning is how we can perpetually and unendingly improve.

Thank your team. “There are few basic needs more important than to be noticed, recognized and appreciated for your efforts,” the authors explain. In addition to feedback, be sure you exemplify gratitude, especially as your team works through all the challenges of remote offices, social distancing, and quarantines. The authors even describe “thank you” as magical words, able to inspire innovation and motivation, simply because your team understands you are grateful for the work they’re doing and overall, you care.

So, what’s the message? Even with a screen to separate us, we can still practice the tenets of effective leadership, which are vital today as we execute on complicated and unfamiliar tasks. Remaining steadfast to the very best leadership practices is essential to our collective growth and it’s a certain way in uncertain times to accomplish our goals.


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