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People are struggling right now. With inflation rates hitting a 40-year high, nearly half of Americans are finding it hard to make ends meet. Many are still adjusting after Covid-19 up-ended life as we knew it, and the world seems to become more embroiled in social and geopolitical unrest every day.
We live in uncertain times with an even more uncertain future, and employees and leaders alike may feel their legs wobble underneath the weight of it all.
Times of change and uncertainty fundamentally blur our vision of the future, and it can be hard to see even a few feet in front of us. In such times, it is on leaders to rise above the challenges of our current context, cut through the cacophony of the outside world and inspire their teams to work toward the mission at hand.
Avoid leadership traps
Leadership on a good day, during a good year, is challenging enough. The context we are living in right now makes it even harder for leaders to realize their vision and empower their people. An employee might unexpectedly leave due to challenges in their home life, and you’ll be left scrambling to find a replacement. A key customer might stop using your service due to budgetary cuts, or you might have a quarter of poor earnings and see your stock tank.
When faced with instability, it is easy for leaders to lead from a place of fear rather than faith. Psychoanalyst Dr. Karen Horney described three coping strategies many turn to in times of stress and pressure: moving toward others, moving away from others and moving against others.
The leader who moves toward people may become extra compliant and seek constant validation and assurance from others. If the leader moves away from people, they will become passive, avoiding conflict and hiding from social interaction. The leader who moves against people resorts to hostility. They become controlling and easily triggered by anger, creating an unsafe workplace.
These coping mechanisms could cause people to lose faith in their leader, disengage from the workplace or seek new employment altogether. Leaders must be vigilant in taking care of their own mental, physical and spiritual health to avoid these pitfalls and turning a challenging time into a catastrophic one.
Work with the new normal, not against it
Once leaders ensure they are fit to do so, it is time to turn to the needs of their employees. What we see as leaders is only a fraction of the day-to-day picture. Much of the work done in an organization is not tangible, and with hybrid work, 80% of your team may be dispersed, working virtually in five different time zones. Within this context, how do we create a workplace that meets employee needs and enables them to stay focused, engaged and aligned?
It starts by assessing what our employees genuinely want and feel is missing from our organization. Some might seek more interpersonal connections, while others may need more robust child-care support. Half of your staff may crave a return to in-person work, while others may thrive in the quiet of their home. Many are likely struggling to stay emotionally grounded and trying to find more meaning in their day-to-day.
To address employees’ many conflicting needs, leaders need to work within the new workplace context rather than against it. Create an office community where employees feel safe, cared for and supported, whether that means providing meeting-free Fridays or creating spaces for in-person meet-ups. Do not try to return everything to the “normal” of before — embrace what’s next and build a culture that enables employees to thrive even amidst such times of change and pain.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel
That said, though we need to account for the “new normal,” this does not mean we must entirely re-invent core leadership tactics. Many qualities of great leaders that have long been touted are still relevant and can be applied to the new contexts we are working within.
If you, like me, need a refresher after the whirlwind of the last few years, here are the five core leadership skills that can help you cut through the noise and optimize your leadership impact:
- Communicate your vision and persuade employees to commit to it themselves.
- Inspire action — encourage your followers to do what may have previously seemed impossible.
- Think strategically, adapting with agility and confidence as environments change.
- Practice emotional intelligence and work to understand your emotions and those of the people around you.
- Master people management — we have no business without our people.
It can be easy to lose sight of the tactics that have long served us well when our world has been upended as thoroughly as it has over the last few years. But the fundamentals of leadership are fundamental for a reason. By returning to basics and re-committing ourselves to their application, we can shore up our reserves and guide our employees with strength and grace through the hardship ahead.
Driving through the rain
At its core, leadership is the act of realizing a clear and compelling vision through others. But what happens when that vision is muddied by external factors — when we’re distracted by the baby crying in the back seat or are forced to take a long and winding detour due to ongoing construction?
There is no telling when the unrest of the last few years will settle, and with a possible recession looming, it seems we are still years away from breaking out of the woods and into the sunny pasture. Leaders must learn to be resilient through times of change and pain and, in turn, inspire resilience in those that work for them. Do not be afraid to steer your team through the rain — if you look out for potholes, listen to the needs of your passengers and remember all the tips from that permit test you took all those years ago, you will have a smoother journey ahead.