Leadership Character in a Crisis – 5 Lessons for Keeping Your Balance

Leadership Character Under Pressure

By Lyn Turknett

Co-founder & Co-Chair, Turknett Leadership Group Every single one of us is in a place we’d never thought we’d be. We can barely cope as human beings – how in the world can we cope as leaders? One of the most gratifying things about the consulting work we’ve done over the past decades is the opportunity to see up close and personal the strength and resilience of ordinary humans. We’ve marveled at the leaders we’ve worked with – at their tenacity, their grit, and their humanity. In 1994 we began thinking really hard about the core of leadership – what was the essence? We were trying to distill leadership into its most basic form – which is influence, or getting people to follow you even when you have no formal power. And we were trying to come up with a simple, visual model of leadership. We saw that no one followed unless they trusted the leader – there needed to be a basic honesty and integrity. We also realized that good leaders always balanced two things – they cared tremendously about people but they could also be laser-focused on results and the bottom line. Lastly, we realized that we were talking about character, and developed then a visual model of character in leadership depicted as a scale. The scale has a strong base labeled “Integrity” – great leaders are honest, trustworthy, and authentic. Two sides – sides that are often in competition – are balanced on the scale: Respect (Humility, Empathy, Emotional Mastery, and Lack of Blame) and Responsibility (Courage, Accountability, Self-confidence, and Focus on the Whole). The Leadership Character model has guided our work since that time, and we’ve also seen that times of challenge and crisis make the individual elements and the difficult balance even more important. Crisis tests us. Think of Churchill during the blitz in London in 1940 – leaders with that kind of courage and caring can hold a country together. As Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand at times of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” We are all tested now, especially as leaders. People are looking to us. The solid base of honesty, genuineness, and authenticity is more important than ever, and we need to think of balancing respect and responsibility in everything we do. Here are some ideas for leadership character in a crisis – and we’ve seen these things shine through in our clients.  

Lesson One: Start By Calming Yourself

Emotional Mastery is one of the elements on the Respect side of the scale, but my husband and business partner, Bob, has often said that leaders need to think of it as foundational. In our research we see that leaders who say that they do a good job in Emotional Mastery – answering questions like “I can stay calm in a crisis” affirmatively – are much more likely to be rated by others as great leaders. But how can we stay calm? We’d respond by saying: given an external situation that is horribly difficult, it is important that you don’t think in ways that exaggerate your anxiety. You need all your brain’s resources for problem solving, not catastrophizing. So how in the world do you do that? It’s never easy, but here are a few tips:
  • When you catastrophize, saying things to yourself like “this is terrible” or I can’t believe this is happening,” your emotional centers will feel “required” to feel extreme negative emotions. Whatever is happening is already bad enough, so you don’t want to add your own excessive negative emotions to an already-difficult situation. Just changing the dialog in your head to something like “this is unfortunate, but I’m going to focus on problem solving” will help you calm yourself.
  • Remember that you always have a choice in how you respond. Monitor your inner dialogue. Remember that you are the master of that dialogue, and you have a choice in how you respond to any situation or any thought.
  • Watch the words you use very carefully. Words like “should” can often exaggerate our negative emotions. Our brain experiences the word “should” – as in “she should be more grateful” – as a demand, and when that demand doesn’t get met, the consequence is extreme negative emotion.
  • Practice mindfulness. This is a great time to start a mindfulness practice. Apps like Calm and Headspace can be great. Mindfulness also helps you deal with the little voice in your head by helping you experience the thoughts from a distance – with awareness but without anxiety or agitation.
We aren’t talking here about being overly positive or unrealistic – just keeping awareness of the power we have over our own thoughts and feelings.  

Lesson Two: Be honest and transparent.

This could have been lesson one. You’ve got no choice here. If you can’t be honest at this time, likely nothing else matters. Why? It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the only thing that works. People can “read” you – they can tell if a leader is not being transparent. Be as open and clear as you can with the situation and with what you are seeing in the future. Balance is important here too. Good leaders know how to be completely, brutally honest and still hopeful. Some of you have likely read Good to Great by Jim Collins. Collins calls the need to balance brutal facts with hope in the future the “Stockdale Paradox,” named for Vietnam prisoner of war Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was imprisoned for seven years, and was tortured repeatedly. He was the highest-ranking officer in the camp, so he was an informal leader of other prisoners. He told Collins that overly optimistic prisoners often didn’t make it. And prisoners who were sure they would never be released often didn’t make it. Stockdale could balance the realism of a brutal situation with the belief that someday he would prevail. We heard David Gergen asked recently what people are looking for in leaders now. He said, “What people are looking for is blunt, stark realism along with a sense of hope.” That’s not an easy balance, but as leaders it’s the one we need to strive for.  

Lesson Three: Beef up your empathy

As leaders it is so easy right now to focus simply on fact and figures, dollar and cents, and keeping the business alive. As small business owners, we understand that so very well right now. We are all focused just on figuring out how to manage cash and whether the business can remain viable. That’s essential – and no one can forget it. Remember, though, that there is a huge human side to this challenge as well. People are frightened and are looking to you, and you owe those people your most compassionate self. “A few weeks ago,” Lyn says, ”just after the CARES act had passed, we were desperately trying to get our Payrolls Protection Program application in. We were all looking for information and sending emails furiously, and suddenly realized that it had been hours since I’d thought about the fact that a human was on the other end of an email. I had thanked no one and appreciated nothing – I had just been demanding and all business.“ That kind of behavior will not help you build a company capable of weathering this storm, and it will not help people feel cared for and willing to do the hard things this crisis requires. When people feel empathy, when they feel that you know how they are feeling, when they feel cared about, they are much more likely to care about the organization. Connecting on a human level has never been more important.  

Lesson Four: Beef up Communication

Don’t wait until you have the answers. Talk about what’s happening, and don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know. Acknowledge that this is a time of uncertainty, and be humble. One of our role models for character, humility, and communication is Frank Blake, former Chairman and CEO of The Home Depot. We have presented awards for Leadership Character since 2004, and Frank Blake received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership Character in 2016. He believed in respect for each employee. He led the company through the 2008 recession with a laser focus on customer service and communication with associates. Finally, he visited stores and spent Sundays writing notes to individual associates who had gone the extra mile. Frank Blake was recently interviewed for Yahoo Finance. “This is the time to be most focused on communication,” he said. “Most focused on communication with employees. Most focused on communication with your board and customers. It starts with your employees and having a very effective cadence of telling your employees what you are doing, what is happening, taking care of them.” “This is the event that five years from now people are going to be looking back on as setting the culture and tone and heart of an organization, recognizing that the leaders of the organization need to be doing the things that you know everyone is going to be proud of having done five years from now.”  

Lesson Five: Balance Compassion and Candor, Empathy and Courage

Kim Scott’s best seller, Radical Candor, suggests that in most forthright interactions we need to balance empathy and courage. Empathy, on the Respect side of the Leadership Character scale, allows us to connect with people and help them feel heard, while Courage, on the Responsibility side of the scale, helps us to be direct and honest, saying things that are hard. In this time you may need to let people go that you’ve worked with for years. Show your empathy. Tears are not a sign of weakness; they are a sign of compassion. State the facts of the situation with as much love, empathy, and directness as you can. We have always admired British resilience during World War II. Winston Churchill was a remarkable leader, and his balance of empathy and courage helped the British endure 57 consecutive nights of bombing in London. He would visit bomb sites during the day, showing empathy and admiration for the people who were suffering. He never seemed to worry for his own safety. Churchill said that he did not make the British brave, he just allowed their courage to come forward. This can be a time for growth. We know that people grow from struggle and challenge, and we have seen remarkable adaptability, agility, and resilience in the individuals and client companies we serve. Admiral Stockdale told Jim Collins, “I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail—get out of this—but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person.”  

Lyn’s Bio