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Building Great Leadership in Tough Times

Leaders routinely guide companies through changing market conditions and customer needs. There’s a big difference, though, between leading companies through a planned change that is initiated by the organization and unplanned changes imposed by outside forces. Change such as, oh … let’s say a pandemic — or broad and sustained economic volatility — or a racial inequity crisis — or, if we’re talking 2020, all three at once!

How can you model great leadership in tough times? Here are four skills that we’re seeing in people who are leading effectively through today’s uncertainties. 

1) Innovation

There is no roadmap for navigating through today’s unique combination of challenges. Leadership in tough times means coming up with new ways of operating. 

Six months ago, most of us didn’t know what COVID-19 was. Few of us had a stash of masks and hand sanitizer. Business continuity plans didn’t address social distancing, virtual meetings, and working from home. The CARES Act and PPP funding were nowhere on the hearts and minds of business owners or finance teams. And the push for diversity and inclusion was, for many, one of many planned initiatives to improve company culture. 

Leaders who are navigating through this complex set of entangled challenges are innovating every day. They’ve thrown out the old playbooks and are finding creative, new solutions to work with the new realities. These leaders are inspiring and motivating their teams to act, to implement and adopt new ways of working together and of serving clients. 

2) Adaptability and Resilience 

Adaptability is essential for change, of course. What’s different about leadership during a crisis is a heightened need for leaders and the people who follow them to adapt quickly. They must respond accordingly as new information, new solutions, and new realities emerge. 

Take working from home as an example. For many businesses, the shift to working from home was an abrupt move guided by “best-effort” decisions. Decisions that were based on incomplete and imperfect information. A recent Mercer report found that “only 22 percent of organizations were ready for mass remote working before the lockdown and within a month of the outbreak, close to 40 percent of organizations had implemented company-wide mandatory work-from-home policies.” 

Now, a number of high-profile businesses have announced long-term plans for their workforce to work from home. This new reality changes how leaders guide a geographically and digitally dispersed organization. It introduces a whole new set of challenges and a demand for resilient leaders. Leaders that are ready to navigate the transition, overcome new obstacles, and execute contingency plans. Also, leaders that can soften resistance from stakeholders wary of change. 

3) Empathy

Great leaders are known for stellar communications. They really “get” how their people are feeling and they find the right words to inform, inspire, and guide through disruption. It’s no wonder that in a Center for Creative Leadership survey of 1,000 leaders, executive communication topped the list of leadership competencies. 

This is particularly important for leadership during a crisis. Leaders’ communications, infused with empathy, can make the difference between people feeling anxious or angry – and making up their own versions of the truth – and people feeling informed, valued, and loyal to the company. It can be especially tough right now for employees to ably manage work and household demands – especially when school-age children are learning remotely. 

The best leaders are speaking up consistently and clearly, to keep their stakeholders informed. They are implementing wellness programs to support physical and mental wellbeing. Leaders are also listening, looking for ways to understand and empathize with what employees are going through. They are creating flexible environments that empower managers to adjust employee work hours, for example, to accommodate competing priorities from home.

4) Strategic Vision

One of the most important priorities of leadership in tough times is to maintain a strategic perspective. There are others who can step up for a tactical response; leaders are responsible for executing on the strategic vision. 

We’ve seen great leaders who are effortlessly balancing the tension of daily tasks and strategic actions, consistently choosing actions that maintain the company’s future viability. They are unafraid to challenge the status quo. Their day-to-day activities still involve communicating, facilitating discussions and agreement, innovating and coaching – but all through the lens of doing what’s best for the company and its people long-term. 

What inspires you most about today’s leaders? How well are your leaders leading through this tough time? If your organization is recalibrating its leadership competencies and leadership development initiatives in the face of multiple unanticipated challenges, you’re not alone. One thing we’ve learned from 2020 (so far) is that tomorrow’s leaders will need a special mix of skills to lead us through all that comes next. 

Read our 5 Key Competencies to Cultivate in Your Future Leaders white paper for tips on essential leadership competencies. Or contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills™ can support your leadership development program. 


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