Leadership – like everything else – looks different right now. We are all in uncharted waters in so many ways. Individuals who are working amid all this uncertainty are looking to their leaders for support, stability, and reassurance. If you are a coach, you may find that those leaders are turning to you for the same. How can you help?
There are no easy answers right now, but we spent some time considering how our research and experience could help provide some helpful guidance. In the webinar Leading the Way Forward in Unprecedented Times, MRG President Tricia Naddaff shared some ideas drawn from neuroscience and years of leadership research.
Read on for highlights from the presentation, as well as a Q&A with Tricia and comments from those in attendance. You are also welcome to watch the presentation on-demand.
Our Brains in Crisis
While we may find ourselves experiencing different degrees of disruption right now, depending on geography, home life, and other circumstances, there is no doubt that most are in some level of crisis.
Our brains are designed to keep us safe and to conserve energy, building our reserves so that when unexpected challenges arise, we are able to meet them. This means the brain has evolved to be:
- Threat sensitive: our brains may anticipate threats that aren’t there – and react as if they are – thousands of times, just so we will be ready to respond when a threat does arise.
- Lazy: our brains have evolved to prefer doing things that are easy – i.e., things that are known. Learning new things takes energy; to conserve energy, our brains prefer habits (whether they are good habits or bad).
When are brain is under extreme stress, the older and more primitive portions take over. (Think the “flight, flight, or freeze” response.) The prefrontal cortex – the part that controls those vital higher functions we rely on for more complex thinking, reasoning, and decision-making – takes a back seat.
The brain in crisis:
Fortunately, there are strategies for calming the crisis response, thereby giving the prefrontal cortex back online:
- Healthy eating
- Spending time outdoors
- Breathing exercises
- Tapping (EFT)
- Gratitude Practices
- A reasonable schedule
- Helping others
We also know several things that do not help us calm, and can amplify anxiety:
- The news
- Not maintaining boundaries
- Trying to be perfect
- Focusing on things you can’t control
Each of us can take some responsibility for implementing these strategies for ourselves. But leaders face an additional challenge. Their employees are feeling alone, afraid, uncertain, overwhelmed. They are looking to leadership for support, connection, communication, and flexibility.
It may seem like a lot to ask – especially as leaders are trying to care for their own needs as well. So what is the behavioral profile of someone who leads effectively amid so much uncertainty?
Leading in Uncertain Times: What are Effective Leaders Doing?
In a global study of more than 5,000 leaders, we looked at which behaviors correlate with effective leadership during times of uncertainty. The results indicated that there are several key behaviors leaders can emphasize to dial-up their effectiveness in these circumstances.
- Think strategically
- Bring your expertise into play
- Explore innovative ideas
- Be compelling and persuasive when you can
- Balance enthusiasm with calm
- Be clear and constant with your communication
- Be compassionate (to yourself and to others)
- Offer and ask for help
- Invite input
- Take initiative to lead
Pause before Moving Forward
This may seem like a long or complex list of requirements. How can we coach leaders to keep so many things in mind at once (particularly at such a challenging and stressful time)?
It starts with a pause. Encouraging leaders to pause in order to coach with intention is an essential component of this work. Taking a moment to reflect – to engage that prefrontal cortex – before moving forward gives us an opportunity to adjust course and to move forward with intention.
However, it is essential to acknowledge that even a mindful leader, armed with all of these strategies, cannot do it all on their own. Too many organizations still cling to the myth of the heroic leader, who can master every skill and fulfill the needs of the organization and the individuals they work with.
This myth is harmful to both leaders and organizations. Our research indicates that these “do it all” leaders almost never exist; to cover all the components of effective leadership, you need to rely on more than one leader. Organizations need to move toward a model of shared leadership, where relying on each other is seen not as weakness, but as a strategic imperative. (For more on shared leadership, check out this Coaching Crib Sheet; or MRG clients can find more resources in the Knowledge Base.)
There is so much uncertainty about how we will emerge from this crisis; but we will emerge. The best things leaders can do to get themselves and their teams through this challenge: take care of themselves; focus on the behaviors that will help them lead effectively; and establish connections that will help them share the leadership responsibilities.
For a deeper dive, you can watch the full webinar on-demand here. And read on for questions from the webinar and responses from presenter Tricia Naddaff.
Questions & Answers
Q: How do you maintain boundaries when there is pressure and expectations to be online and respond quickly?
A: Our sense of urgency has certainly increased during this time. This is likely is related to our brains experiencing our current situation as an emergency and therefore creating the need for speed as a way to have some control over a situation where many of us have very little control.
To the extent that we are able, it is helpful to reach shared agreements about what the real needed response time is for various inquiries and requests. Further, it is helpful for us to determine where we have control over our response time and where we do not. When we are in a state of stress our brains release norepinephrine, which heightens our sense of anxiety and increases our sense of threat (i.e. “If I don’t respond to this right away, there are going to be very serious consequences.”).
Finally, we can take advantage of our brain’s gullibility to help it interpret these pressures and expectations in ways that are soothing to our brains rather than more stressful for our brains. So mindsets such as the following can help reduce stress:
- “Everyone is just doing the best they can.”
- “I’m responding in ways that are most helpful under the current circumstances.”
- “I’m pausing whenever I can to stretch and take a few deep breaths.”
Where mindsets such as the following, are likely to cause greater stress:
- “I can’t take this much longer.”
- “This is so unreasonable.”
- “I have no control over what’s happening.”
Q: Why do you believe that being Persuasive is so low? [In reference to the relative importance of behaviors for leaders showing high competency in supporting effective leadership through uncertainty.]
A: Out of 22 behaviors, Persuasive is the 7th most important behavior related to being seen as effective in the Intellectually Sharp theme. So while the results of the research show it had less importance that the top 6 behaviors, it is more important that the remaining 15 behaviors in the LEA model.
Our hypothesis of why the other 6 may be more important is that when you are able to demonstrate your Innovative, Technical and Strategic thinking and you are able to Communicate that thinking in very clear, confident (and repetitive ways) you are likely to “convince” people in many instances and may not need to, in those cases, to overtly “sell” or “persuade” people. Therefore the instances where Persuasion is required may be present, but less frequent.
Q: What would the LEA profile look like for shared leadership?
A: Great question (and a good idea for us when it is time to update our research questions in the LEA – for both self and observer input). But for right now, let me pose this hypothesis and then let’s test it when we add those research questions. I would say the backbone profile would be the following:
- Strategic – for having a vision for what the leader wants in the shared leadership space
- Less emphasis on Self – so the leader is not spending too much time thinking and acting autonomously
- Communication – so the leader is able to clearly share their thoughts, ideas and expectations in the shared leadership relationship(s)
- Feedback – so the leader is able to share how the shared space is working for her/him.
- Management Focus – so the leader is taking responsibility for her/his role as a leader
- Consensual – so the leader is taking the initiative to ask for and use the input from those she/he is practicing shared leadership
Q: Can leadership be perfected or is it a learning process?
A: We at MRG believe that Leadership is a career long (or even a life long) learning journey. Because there is no single ideal approach to leadership, and because the contexts in which we lead are always changing, and because we, as individuals, change, evolve and grow, we absolutely believe that you never “arrive” at a final leadership destination but grow through a continual learning journey.
Q: I’m not sure that our clients and their colleagues are in the right space for LEA 360 implementation now. They may not even be in a space to understand the whole model. We could share this information with them in our own ways, but we would just be laying a foundation for the future.Do you agree?
A: We are already starting to see wide variation in what clients and their colleagues have the space for right now. Some organizations are more affected by our current situation and some are somewhat less affected. As a result we are seeing some programs continue with their 360 assessment work, some choosing to use the self only version of the LEA, some choosing to use more personal assessments right now (MRG’s motivation assessment, the IDI, or our Personal Directions assessment which is an assessment that is very helpful when people are contemplating or going through significant transitions).
We are anticipating that some clients will not be in a position to do a 360 (for a variety of reasons) and may opt for just the LEA Self assessment. We are also anticipating that people may be too overwhelmed or distracted to do an extensive profile review and may want a report that provides easier to digest highlights and so we are in the process of creating an easier to digest report for both the LEA and the IDI (stay tuned for more information).
I do agree that for some people receiving micro doses of insights will be the maximum they can digest and work with and in those instances, I agree just sharing small pieces of the research to light a way forward will be the most helpful.
Q: Do you have anything linked to this on how this applies to teams as a whole rather than to individual leaders?
A: The outcome variables MRG uses to determine effectiveness are measures for individuals in the leadership role. It is reasonable to extrapolate this to individual effectiveness within a team (i.e. what behaviors are likely to result in someone being an effective team member in a crisis – especially if the team is a leadership team). However, if your question is what is needed from a team as a whole in order for people outside of the team to see the team as effective in a crisis, that we do not have research on. I would hazard a guess however, that the answer to that may vary (and may vary even significantly) based on the role of the team. For example what we might expect from a customer service team, compared to an engineering team, compared to a finance team may be more influenced by their specialized function than by the fact that they are all organized as a team.
Q: Can you talk about an accountability partner? Someone who can help you with ups and downs?
A: I think the leadership behaviors that would be among the most helpful to have in an accountability partner would be:
- Control – which in our LEA model is the behavior of following up and staying on top of things to ensure a task is complete, a commitment is fulfilled or and goal is accomplished
- Consensual – which in the LEA model is asking for and using input and in the case of the accountability partner would be someone who would ask their colleague questions which would help the colleague reflect on their progress, blocks and challenges
- Moderate Empathy – Enough to care about their colleague but not so much that the accountability partner losses their resolve to help their colleague stay accountable
- Moderate Management Focus – Enough to take on the accountability role with a sense of influence and strength but not so much that the accountability partner ends up taking on a more managerial role with their colleague rather than staying in the accountability partner role.
(Are you part of the MRG network? Log into the MRG Knowledge Base once to access other webinars and more than twenty Best Practice Reports, along with the full MRG research library.)
Also, if there’s anything we at MRG can do to help support you or advise you as you transition to more online coaching, training, and facilitation in the coming weeks, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re all working through this together (even if we’re apart!).