As we all experience the highly unusual and deeply unsettling experience of a global pandemic, I thought it might be helpful to think about the core traits of leaders who are successful in times of crisis. Many of you will be familiar with the acronym VUCA, which really describes the times we are living in. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. We certainly are experiencing a lot of VUCA these days! And although we are seeing examples of leadership that has fallen short, we are also seeing many examples of leadership that rises to the occasion.
How do leaders manage through situations like this? It seems to me that there are four key traits exhibited by those leaders we most respect during difficult events.
Curiosity: The best leaders are the ones asking questions. In unsettled times or unique situations, some leaders rely on their existing body of knowledge and try to muddle through with the tools they have. But others – the ones demonstrating effective leadership – are those who are asking questions, such as:
- What is it that I do not know about this situation?”
- Where are my gaps?
- Who are the experts about what is going on?
- Who has the best data?
- Who has experienced this before, if anyone?
- Who has imagined this scenario before and has already been thinking about it?
Questions like these separate the good leaders from truly great ones in times of crisis. There is good evidence that curiosity leads to fewer decision-making errors, more innovation and better team performance. In fact, top women CEOs rated curiosity as the number one quality for success as an executive.
Willingness to learn on the fly: Another trait that builds on the capacity for curiosity is willingness to learn. There are folks who are curious but unable to shift their thinking based on what they learn. Leaders who can ask questions like those above and then shift their thinking rapidly based on new information can capitalize on both strengths to make better decisions. But if a leader is rigid, or even just reluctant to change, in a rapidly evolving crisis situation, the decision paralysis they experience can make the difference between weathering the crisis successfully and collapse. This concept is known as learning agility, and it is a key trait for leadership in VUCA times.
Flexibility: You will begin to sense a theme among all of these traits. Flexibility in thinking, willingness to seek new information, willingness to make decisions rapidly and in new ways, adoption of nimble thinking that enables calculated risks. These are all examples of flexibility.
Flexibility can be defined as “the ability to shift perspectives and actions when new or unexpected events arise.” Psychologist Dr. Gil Noam suggests that adults can develop flexibility by “considering and embracing unusual solutions, encouraging outside perspectives, framing issues from different angles and challenging previously held beliefs.” This is a skill that can be developed and practiced ahead of a crisis. Learning it as a new skill in the middle of a crisis may not be the best time to build your muscles around flexibility, although if you find yourself in this situation, you will adapt with self-awareness and support.
Transparency: Telling the truth and sharing information clearly and often are hallmarks of crisis management communication. If we look at the CDC guidebook for crisis and emergency risk communication, key elements of communication competency in such times include:
- consistency of information
- accuracy of information
- not withholding vital information
- using knowledge and discipline to communicate key information
These practices apply beyond the public health sphere but are particularly noteworthy as we think about our current pandemic experience. Leaders must resist the temptation to jockey for position and visibility in managing the message, as well as the natural tendency to want to provide only reassuring information. Choosing the right messenger to deliver accurate information that is sometimes difficult, with the right balance of empathy and compassion, and then managing those who might want to compete for the limelight in delivering that message, are key tasks for a leader.
Leadership when it matters most
Curiosity, learning agility, flexibility and transparency — these are necessary and valuable skills for leaders who manage through crisis situations. They won’t give you all the answers, but they will enable you to be honest about what you know and what you don’t, and they will enable you to make the best possible decisions with the information you have.
People are looking to you for answers. This mix of openness, wisdom and humility will reassure them that you are doing your best to provide them.
I’m curious how you have experienced these traits in yourself or others you have seen in leadership. What other traits would you add to the list? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.