What Does Leadership Look Like Post Crisis?
This article was originally published in Forbes.
It’s been called the coronavirus leadership test – leaders who passed the test acted boldly and decisively during the pandemic, even with imperfect information. They communicated honestly and vulnerably, and they connected compassionately in the face of enormous personal suffering and historic levels of stress and anxiety.
But what happens now? Will years of muscle memory kick in, drawing leaders back to pre-pandemic forms of leading, or are those old leadership behaviors so wildly outdated now as to appear quaint, even extinct?
We recently spoke with Matthias Birk, PhD, Global Director of Partner Development at White & Case and Adjunct Professor for Leadership at New York University. We asked Matthias what he sees happening with leaders and leadership today.
Potential Project: Matthias, what key shifts have you observed this past year in the leaders you work with and teach?
Matthias Birk: There is a saying, "Never let a crisis go to waste." I think the pandemic has presented incredible opportunities for people in leadership roles to change how they operate. But it's much harder to lead when there is uncertainty, and you don't have the answers. And it's much harder to lead when people on your team are feeling anxious. How do I operate with that as a leader?
Two things I have observed: first, how do we deal with feelings? During the pandemic, it suddenly became a core part of a leader’s job to facilitate environments where people can talk about their feelings and feel safe.
And secondly: ‘How do I lead through uncertainty without thinking that I as a leader can provide the answers? Because I know I can’t.”
I think the best leaders are those who are able to create the conditions in which people can talk and process feelings, and where collectively as a group, everyone can embrace the uncertainty and say, ‘What are the opportunities that arise from here? What does it mean for us? How do we operate? How do we adapt?’ Our minds constantly want to predict, but most of the time those predictions are wrong.
Potential Project: It’s so true. With such an enormous degree of uncertainty around us, we are increasingly coaching leaders on how to distinguish between what they can and can’t control and then to practice acceptance as an intentional action.
And it’s not easy being a leader right now. There is a lot of pivoting to new behaviors and new demands on a leader’s time. How do you see leaders faring with all of this?
Matthias Birk: I had a conversation recently with a leader who is very concerned about his people. He said, ‘All day long I feel like I'm putting in the work. I'm checking in with people and making sure they are doing well. And, at the end of the day, I realize I am just barely hanging on.’ I think we are seeing some of the classic caretaker problem emerging, of giving so much to the person or people we’re caring for that we don’t leave enough space for ourselves.
These days, leaders must be checking in with themselves and have strategies for refilling the bucket, so they don't get to the place where it runs empty. Because if you’re running on empty, that will be good for no one. This mentality has to be a core part of leaders’ responsibilities.
Potential Project: Correct, and leaders can’t do it alone. Organizations must play a role in supporting and rejuvenating their leaders, especially when demands on them are at an all-time high. Do you think organizations are doing enough in this regard?
Matthias Birk: I’ve seen organizations realizing that they need to have a program or platform in place where they can train their leaders to create the right conditions, where they can talk through things, and grow in key areas. In that sense, I think certainly that the awareness has grown.
Potential Project: As we begin to stabilize from the pandemic, what do you think should be on the list of the “must-have” leadership traits for the new world of work?
Matthias Birk: The ability to allow feelings to be there without needing to change them or resist them or judge them. We’ve long known that psychological safety is a key success factor for teams. I think what we may witness is that great leaders will now more than ever create environments where people feel compelled and open to bring their complete selves to work. And that in turn will lead to deep meaningful connections, honest conversations and a willingness to embrace possibilities that arise when we show up as our complete selves.