Empowerment and Leadership in Challenging Times

It always seems to be a cliché, but is always true when someone talks about how quickly the world changes. This is especially true during the current coronavirus crisis. We thought we knew (but couldn’t really be sure) how much our personal and business lives would be affected by the current pandemic. And even though we're living a very altered existence, the reality seems surreal ... at best.

We originally planned to write about the concept of “happiness” in the workplace and the academic emphasis the effect happiness has on the workplace and workforce when we discussed topics for our first article of 2020. For the two of us, a busy January and February kept us from putting pen to paper, and then March arrived with the coronavirus and all family and work routines were changed for the present and, perhaps, for a much longer period. Happiness is obviously important; however, we will get back to that subject later. In these challenging times, we decided to offer some thoughts about leadership and being an “empowered leader.” While leadership is always key, this will never be as true as it is at this moment.

Leadership isn't simply about the leader; it's about empowering other people as a result of one’s presence, interest and respect. The impact of the best leadership always continues in the physical absence of the leader. Leaders are responsible for creating conditions that allow people to fully realize the extent of their own capacity and power. It's less about when the leader is present and more about when the leader isn't physically present. Central to all of this is trust.

Frances Frei and Anne Morriss discuss this concept and the tenets of empowerment leadership in the May-June 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review. Their arguments center around the importance of trust and three core drivers necessary to engaging trust: authenticity, empathy, and logic.

“People tend to trust you when they believe they are interacting with the real you (authenticity), when they have faith in your judgement and competence (logic), and when they feel that you care about them (empathy). “If one or more of these drivers breaks down, trust likely will quickly be lost." (HBR, May-June 2020)

The drivers for trust — authenticity, logic and empathy — are significant factors that affect leadership in what we would have previously characterized as “normal” times. Not surprisingly, we argue that the need for trust and the drivers behind it are even more important in challenging times. Leaders need to focus on what's needed, expected and hardest to do — to be authentic and be honest, to be as consistent and upfront as possible. Transparency is important in uncertain times. Accessibility is just the same.

We live in a time of exploding technology. Leaders, due to advanced technology, continue to interface and manage people and situations from remote locations. In times of crisis, communication is easy and no one has to worry about being without information. Overcommunication rules!

Tied to communication is logic, pure and simple. People need to have confidence in their leaders, in their ideas and actions. This is especially critical in challenging times. If people don’t trust the judgment of their leaders or overall leadership, they won't respect or “follow” their lead. The resulting breakdown of trust and clarity in normal times causes enough chaos. In challenging times, this type of failure is deadly.

Empathy, the hardest to define and probably the most important, is the third driver of trust. While important in all leadership situations, in crisis times empathy is particularly critical.

“If people think you care more about yourself than about others, they won’t trust you enough to lead them.” (HBR, May-June 2020)

Empathetic leaders focus on the needs of others. They listen, engage and take responsibility for the needs of individuals and for the total team. Crises tend to magnify fear by creating an environment of uncertainty. “Seeing” this and leading with empathy will minimize fear and allow people to trust that leadership will listen, learn, adjust and navigate through the crisis.

Many scholars and journalists are currently writing about the challenges facing a world where a pandemic (or some other such crisis) controls human activity and takes control from the individual. We're in unchartered territory not only due to this particular crisis, but due to the growing number of crises which no one individual or government seems to control. In the past, we faced the Great Depression, 9/11, the 2008 financial collapse, and other epidemics. During those crises, adversity was faced by the individual but, more by the community. Society, the workplace, families and friends all relied on gatherings, and the ability to share common experiences to help navigate the challenges of everyday life.

The current situation is unique in that the “normal” levers that helped people move through a more understandable disruption are no longer the norm. At this point, isolation is the norm and the need for newer types of leadership is even greater and may need to be delivered in unconventional ways. Successful leadership has never depended more on creativity and unconventionality.

So what about “happiness”? There have been a few articles published recently about the affect “happiness” has on and in the workplace. The concept has been redefined without anyone clearly stating what this redefinition actually is. Of course, happier people tend to be more productive. Some emotional intelligence assessments include a “happiness” meter as research shows that “happiness’ is actually correlated with self-awareness and effective interpersonal relationships. “Happiness” has probably never been more important than it is today as we patiently (or not so patiently) await the time when we can find a new normal, return to an office, restaurant, nail or hair salon, gym, or simply be outside with others.

It's also arguably a time when “happiness” has never been more challenging. We're not asking that leaders be “happy.” They need to be content that they're present and paying attention to the greater need for “happiness” or, at least, balance. Leaders need to be confident, balanced and committed to the business, but more to the individuals who drive the business and make it perform. They need to be curious and willing to productively do what it takes to achieve their objectives and goals. However, we posit that the most effective leaders understand the need to enjoy life at some core level, and understand that leading in a balanced, confident and empathetic manner will enjoy the trust and confidence of others to the degree needed in a more complex and seemingly far more dangerous world.

Sometimes we wish that there was a “better” word to use, but maybe a simple one like “happiness” will do, especially in times that threaten the ability to be happy in a manner that we've never seen before. We need leadership and we need happiness — in ways we didn't envision just last December.

Our final thought is to encourage leaders to be flexible, ensure trust, be confident and develop an approach that meets the needs of the times we live in. After all, we all need a little joy in our lives, a little happiness to make the day seem worthwhile. What are you doing to uplift a co-worker? What are leaders doing to make the workplace new, different, more a part of living than simply a means to an end? That's something to ponder.

Sharon Tunstall is a consultant at Connect the Dots, a leadership solutions consulting company. Frederick Lamster is the managing director at ZRG Partners, a progressive mid-sized global executive search firm that uses a proven, data-driven approach.

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