Effective Leadership in Challenging Times

Leaders can be highly effective in some situations and significantly less effective in other situations. The right leader, at the right time and in the right place, can work magic. Conversely, the wrong leader at the wrong time or in the wrong place can underperform, even if historically they have been a “high achiever.” I imagine we can all think of a high-performing or even iconic CEO who has been fired from one company only to be hired by another and begin a second (or third) successful run. Why is a person who has been very high performing in the past suddenly less effective? Did something change? Did they become a different person or leader? The answer is obviously no; rather, the situation changed and the leader did not change their approach to match the new requirements.

Highly effective leadership is situational. There is no single best way to lead. Effective leadership has always been and will always be situational – in the context of external environmental factors and the totality of the unique challenges facing every organization.

With the concept of situational leadership in mind, I wanted to the answer the following questions:

  • What leadership behaviors are most important to be highly effective in an extraordinarily fluid environment such as that resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What drives leadership success in times of crisis and great uncertainty, for example, when so many businesses are under the intense pressures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Management Research Group (MRG), a Portland, Maine-based leadership assessment and research firm, has a leadership 360 assessment tool (The Leadership Effectiveness Analysis or “LEA”). I have used the LEA and studied MRG’s research for years. In their research, MRG data indicates three areas that differentiate highly effective leaders versus those who are less effective in dynamic VUCA environments:

  1. Connected with People € “ At the top of the list is the need for top leaders and especially CEOs to be connected with their people. In uncertain times, employees at all levels are uneasy. They are worried about the business, their jobs, and their families. They want to know their leaders are being thoughtful in their approach and that they care about their situation and feelings (empathy). People expect their leaders to be convincing when they speak. They want to be heard and included in decision-making when possible. They expect frequent, open, honest, transparent, and straight-forward communications and don’t want to be surprised.
  2. Credible and Able to Instill Confidence € “ In times of crisis and uncertainty, people expect their leaders to be poised, credible, cool, calm, and collected. And of course, confident and in control. They want a plan of action that is convincingly presented with clarity they can embrace. People look to their CEO and top leaders to be experts in the business and/or to assemble experts, listen to expert advice, and share the stage. Effective leaders are viewed as being resilient with an ability to make effective decisions and resolve conflicts as they arise.
  3. Intellectually Sharp € “ Having a capacity for insightful and effective thinking is an important leadership behavior in all business environments, and is even more important during times of uncertainty. There is a wide range of information to absorb and people expect their top leaders to deal effectively with ambiguity and to be fast learners who pivot as situations rapidly morph. They want a high-level of self-awareness at the executive-level.

Effective leadership is always important, but never have the stakes felt so high. Leaders need to evolve with the times and they need to use the right suite of leadership behaviors to be most effective in the situations they face, yet remain true to themselves and what comes naturally. The very best leaders do not have a single leadership recipe, they change their approach to fit the situation. They have the emotional intelligence and insight to know when and how to adjust their leadership approach.

During times of crisis filled with challenge, people need their CEOs and top executives to lead with compassion, clarity of purpose, and to frequently and clearly communicate a pathway they can embrace.

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