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Four characteristics of successful leadership during a crisis

"Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about others." — Jack Welch

Effective leadership is under a microscope, now more than ever.

These pandemic-induced health and economic crises, as well as long-gestating social justice issues, have magnified both the positive and negative characteristics of what we view through that lens.

Having been fortunate enough to play a sport in college and later coach others who attained even higher levels of athletic success, I often draw parallels between running a company and being in charge of a team.

While still in my 20s, I returned to my prep school alma mater to work in the communications department and coach ice hockey. Recently married and with no perspective (yet) on raising children, my style was best described as direct, even heavy-handed at times.

This program had been one of the best in the nation when I played there. I’d be damned to see any team I coached at the school not live up to the standards I helped uphold as a student-athlete.

My primary motivation should have been squarely centered on helping these young men reach their potential as people first and players second. Make no mistake: I certainly wanted them to grow and achieve their goals. But if I’m being honest, it wasn’t first on the list.

At that time — now nearly 20 years ago — I cared more about myself than I did about them. Unfortunately, the hard-driving style I employed, ultimately, was often a reflection of my own insecurities, and the way I misguidedly perceived how the team’s performance would reflect on me.

Six years later, back in Pittsburgh and starting to raise two kids of my own, I realized what should have been several obvious characteristics of effective leadership, especially during periods of crisis.

1.     Support others first 

You’re here to help your people. They’re not here to help you. Share the knowledge you’ve learned so those you lead can find solutions to the problems keeping them from reaching their goals. As the quote above from late business executive Jack Welsh suggests, good leaders find joy and fulfillment from the success of others, not in praise for themselves.

Remember, you can’t be an effective leader without sharing a piece of yourself, so be open and vulnerable. Provide stories of challenges you’ve faced personally. Describe how you were able to overcome them. Invest emotional currency in those you lead. People want empathy and understanding from those they follow, not certainty.

2.     Be authentic and honest

During a time of crisis, effective leaders need to inform, reiterate and reinforce. In other words, tell your audience what you honestly know is happening, describe it to them again so they clearly comprehend and then communicate it one more time. Give everyone a roadmap and timeline.

Uncovering, developing and sharing what we call your Capital S Story — the authentic story that explains why someone would work for you, partner with you, invest in you or buy from you — becomes even more critical during the current crises. A well-defined Capital S Story gives you credibility and a significant amount of emotional currency when you need to relate on a deeply personal level with your internal and external stakeholders. Bluntly put, it gives you the benefit of the doubt and buy-in when you need it the most.

3.     Accept responsibility

We are a society that loves to forgive. We accept imperfection. We understand people make mistakes, even big ones. What we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) tolerate is a lack of responsibility from the top. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” as written in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 2.” You’re in charge, so in exchange for likely receiving too much credit, you also have to accept the lion’s share of blame.

Trust is everything. Don’t tell me the sun is shining when I’m getting soaked. We can take bad news. Admit when you don’t have all the facts, emphasize how hard you’re working to get the information and assure us you’ll let us know when you have it. In other words, be accountable.

4.     Display poise, don’t seek perfection

Inspiring confidence — in times both good and bad — is the hallmark of strong leadership, whether it’s in sports, the boardroom or on an actual battlefield. As described by former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, "Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership."

As we find ourselves in the middle of arguably the greatest domestic crisis in the history of this country, ask yourself, “How many of the attributes above do I demonstrate as a leader?”

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