Top 5 Leadership Skills During Difficult Times

Chris Cracknell

The defining moments of a leader’s career are often found during periods of instability. More often than not, it’s the approach taken rather than the decisions made that have the most impact. Courageous leadership is important at the best of times, and especially so when times get tough. It’s the force that pulls together an organization’s strengths and focuses efforts on innovation, growth, and development. 

To perform these functions, leaders need a skillset that is uncommon in their employees. Vision, decisiveness, and dependability are essential qualities – but they are not enough to pull a business through difficult times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all businesses in some way or another. Global-level events such as this highlight the value of truly effective leadership. Like the businesses they run, the difficulty for leaders is adapting in the face of adversity. John C. Maxwell once said that “a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way” – but what if the way is unclear and unpredictable?

In trying times, leadership figures need a new set of skills if they are to guide their organizations towards a brighter future.  

How the pandemic changed the way we lead

Before the pandemic, business leaders could expect to create long-term plans with a relatively high degree of certainty. Even business challenges, such as debt or issues in the supply chain, operated within fairly set parameters. This made it possible to chart a somewhat linear course out of whatever difficulty a business faced. 

What the pandemic has shown us is that times are not always certain. Since current events are so unpredictable, it’s become necessary to react to risk rather than mitigate against it. Leaders must make decisions faster and without the benefit of business intelligence. 

What does it mean to be a leader during tough times?

COVID-19 has irrevocably changed not only the world but the workplace too. It’s at times when leadership decisions matter the most that some of the most important skills become evident. 
 
1. Resilience

An organization takes its lead from senior figures, and panic at the top levels puts the entire business at risk of losing direction. To show the way, leaders must keep a calm head during difficult times.

The key is to approach hard times with cautious optimism. By making decisions based on limited information and listening to others, leaders can look for new solutions rather than panicking about the failure of previous strategies.

2. Honest and open communication 

Communication is the lynchpin of business survival (and success) during times of strife. This is especially true at a time when teams are physically separated and working from home.  

The best leaders are those who can keep their team members unified and moving in the right direction. Through the pandemic, this has been made possible through briefings, virtual social events, and open communications channels.

Honesty is also a crucial feature of effective communication. It helps leaders to manage expectations. People don’t want spin when their livelihoods are on the line. It’s better to clearly state that the path is uncertain than to create a false sense of confidence.

3. Realistic vision and hope

In more certain times, leaders deal with opportunities, challenges, and events that are probable. As the going gets tough, they must instead identify and deal with the possible. 

Hopes and goals for the future are the driving forces that lift businesses out of turmoil, but they must be reasonable. With small and achievable targets, it’s possible to gradually move towards a better position. It’s crucial to adapt to the ‘new normal’, but it’s only feasible to do so by taking one realistic step at a time.  

4. Emotional intelligence

Leaders who can demonstrate emotional intelligence are more likely to elicit commitment and effort from employees. This is especially true when team members feel vulnerable as they may do while working in isolation during a global pandemic.

Through empathetic management, colleagues can feel safe and work to their best potential. This is the antithesis of the sentiment expressed by KPMG’s former UK Chairman when he reportedly told staff to “stop moaning”.

Regardless of his intentions when making that statement, the result was a breakdown of trust. By failing to properly support and care for your team, you risk damaging their ability to contribute. You could also end up missing out on something that could have been beneficial to the company.

5. Agile decision making

Difficult decisions are an inherent feature of leadership. In turbulent times, however, they may force themselves upon leaders who don’t have the benefit of business intelligence.

Leaders must, therefore, make pressured decisions without sufficient – or any – data. Perhaps more importantly, they must have the humility to change their minds. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that there is no longer room for single-minded management. It’s only possible to mitigate risks by adapting to situations as they arise.

Spotting opportunities

Even with a perfect complement of these skills, leaders need help and support if they are to successfully navigate more trying periods. Insight is like gold dust during tough times. The solutions deployed by Network Centrality® provide management with oversight of how their teams operate and where they can improve.

By examining communications networks and the social capital between teams, we make it easier for leaders to pinpoint issues and create more cohesive working strategies. It’s the simplest way to visualize and measure collaboration – which is any organization’s best weapon against uncertainty.

Final thoughts

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a new generation of adaptable leaders rise to the challenge. Many of them embody the resilience, agility, and receptiveness that are all essential leadership skills during tough times.

By coupling those skills with in-depth analysis that supports purposeful organizational change, leaders can improve collaboration across their businesses.  As the great businessman and innovator Henry Ford said, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”
 

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