Leadership in Times of Uncertainty
A Guest Blog by Professor Rosa Allegue, CFO Skechers Iberia.
9 April 2020
The COVID-19 crisis has brought the planet Earth into check.
An opening like this sounds as if it were something from a science fiction movie, and it’s not surprising. If three months ago they had proposed the kind of war that we were going to find ourselves fighting these days, we would think that they were kidding us. At a time when traveling is easier and cheaper than ever, when it seemed to us that borders were a thing of yesterday, globalization has launched a surprise attack on us, charging us with a pandemic that is already compared to the famous and fateful Spanish flu.
Many of us have experienced for the first time the confinement and the absence of freedom of movement, as in any war situation, and in this decade where social networks, robotics, and artificial intelligence seemed to take center stage, we are yearning for personal contact like never before. We need to show our most human side and the collective applause of gratitude from the balconies of our homes nightly is proof of this.
Meanwhile, we are getting used to exercising and working from home, turning our private space into offices or makeshift classrooms as a temporary measure until the end of the state of emergency returns normality and routine to our lives.
In these days of madness, almost in an unhealthy way, we constantly hear the phrase that leaders are lacking or that those we have are failing us. This does not change. With or without crisis, with or without uncertainty, we always need leaders. Good leaders. But good leaders do not show up overnight. Leadership is a process that develops over time. It is a two-sided coin; there is no leader without a follower, nor a follower without a leader. And let’s not kid ourselves, it is the follower who decides who to accept as a leader. So leadership is not easy to improvise in times of crisis. If homework has not been done before, it is difficult to get a good grade.
In companies, it is continually forgotten that it is the team that accepts the leader. Leader is confused with manager in an absolutely naïve way. A position in the organization chart does not give leadership and in moments of uncertainty it is where this becomes most evident. If a leader can’t inspire their team to row in the same direction, then they are not a leader. They will be a boss, but not a leader. If mutual trust, empathy, honesty, and group generosity have not been worked on before, a boss may get their subordinates to do their tasks (even working remotely), but in a difficult situation like the current one, it will be difficult to achieve useful change, which, in the end, is what a good leader aspires to.
It is well known that nothing creates more trust and credibility than leading by example. It is the best way to generate influence and achieve common goals. The challenge in moments of uncertainty is to agree on those common objectives, since these are times when fear arises, and with it, individualism. If the starting point is a cohesive team, it will be easier to win the battle against fear from a realistic position.
And again, having a united team requires previous work, under mutual trust and also under optimism. When you are sick, how important is it to have a positive and optimistic attitude to overcome an illness? According to this analogy, in a crisis, attitude is vital to face problems even in situations as adverse as the one we are experiencing today with an economic recession in sight. A positive outlook and respect for differences between team members are very good assets.
These days we go like crazy, working marathon days, often without a clear goal in sight. We receive and give instructions that change daily. It is normal, and flexibility is an attribute to which we must give particular importance. A good leader must first openly acknowledge any uncertainty to avoid generating more anxiety than necessary. Because there will be anxiety. We must allow our collaborators the space to show their anxiety, and as leaders, we must also allow ourselves to show and share our own concerns with our team.
I have seen many times people try to show security that is non-existent, when the only thing it achieves is to break the trust that has been developed throughout the leadership process. Humility is another attribute that a good leader cannot miss. If the team is strong, each individual will come out stronger. They will overcome difficulties together, painfully aware that some, though not many, may be left behind.
In short, I do not believe that there is a special recipe for leadership in times of uncertainty. However, I firmly believe in the continuity of a natural process where the leader and team grow together and become better prepared for the next crisis. Because there will be one.
As in any process, I have learned new lessons: respect and affection are very powerful weapons. Let’s use them in this war that we have unfortunately had to live through and we will undoubtedly manage to mitigate the casualties.
Written by Professor Rosa Allegue, originally published in Spanish, translated by Vanya Maplestone.