Is there anyone who doesn’t feel vulnerable during this tsunami of disruption? Leaders are thinking about the health of employees, customer needs and behavior, supply chain uncertainties, and financial headwinds.
When pressured by a cascade of very real concerns, some leaders may be tempted to put on a hero suit and charge forth, solving all problems and denying all anxiety.
But blind heroism and denial of one’s own doubts and fears is a recipe for disaster. A leader who cannot acknowledge fear and a sense of vulnerability, even to themselves, is a leader who won’t know what their people are thinking, feeling, and planning to do, until it’s too late to provide leadership.
In my more than 20 years of executive coaching and consulting, here are some important strategies I’ve discovered that can help you understand if you have unhealthy “hero” tendencies, and if so, what to do about it.
First, determine if you feel the need to be a “heroic leader.”
You can ask yourself if you:
- Fear making mistakes
- Hide or deny errors
- Don’t admit your own fears
- Silence those who express fear and anxiety
- Can’t bring yourself to say “I don’t know”
- Need to be the architect of every solution
- Refuse to delegate
In the presence of a person who needs to be the hero, others can’t do their best. Now, the best in each of us is what we need.
Now, it’s time to adjust and develop new ways to leading. Here are four principles to keep in mind:
- Assume that what you “know” might not be accurate. If the current crisis has taught us anything, it is that we need to learn and adapt quickly. Stubbornly holding on to myths and erroneous beliefs are now deadly. The extreme examples in the news are shocking and have an unfortunate effect on many; that being relief it isn’t them in the news. That is a low bar. Leaders need to take a close look at their decisions and look for the erroneous assumptions they hold. The impact of minor mistakes in perception and thinking can lead to major errors of judgement.
- Abandon practices that are more bureaucratic than useful. Advice about “keeping things normal” has its utility, but more so if leaders incorporate the reality that things aren’t normal. Leaders can give others the opportunity to talk about how they are doing. They can express their own uncertainty about what will happen and when, while simultaneously expressing confidence in the capacity of people to get through even massive challenges and fear.
- Assume that rapid change, which is out of your control, is the order of the day. Leaders need to avoid the trap of “knowing.” We all know they don’t know. Far better to admit not knowing and the real anxiety that lack of information breeds. Leaders can model acceptance of the situation and how to use our capabilities at the same time.
- Care for your own anxiety. Trying to wrestle anxiety to the ground on your own can create more distress. Great leaders know to ask for help and have the courage to ask even when they don’t know what might be helpful. They also avoid spreading anxiety by using meetings as the venue for them to express their fears. This over-sharing may fly under the banner of vulnerability, but it is not helpful even when given a popular label. A previous newsletter talks about this issue in more depth.
This situation is not the new normal; it is a time of extreme disruption. Leaders can admit it and call upon the best in others to help weather the storm. They can express confidence in our collective abilities, especially those of adaptation and resourcefulness. To do this well, leaders need to recognize that by calling on their own strengths and those of others, many people are able to be heroic.