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“Y’know Pod, for the first time in my CEO career I am finding being a leader really hard! The Board and market are expecting the outcomes we promised a year ago despite the market taking a hit due to retailing being shut down in many cities, and of course I understand that. Over 20% of our employees are telling us they never want to come back to the office and some have moved away from our city, meaning they won’t be able to come back in. Our company culture was built on successful collaboration, so what does that mean going forward? Many of our team are feeling very frazzled with WFM, home schooling and all that covid has brought us. There is a jobs boom going on in our sector which is becoming quite mercenary in poaching people from company to company! And I am expected to know all the answers, to give certainty when politicians cannot, to offer hope where the media are only calling out doom and take care of all our people. It is really hard being a leader right now!”

So said one very experienced CEO level leader to me today.

I hear you! In the last week alone, I have had four conversations that have sounded like that one. And I agree, right now it is hard being a leader. No denying that. I suspect it will be hard for a while longer! In the last year I have noticed an increasing pressure on leaders to be all things to all their people all the time. And to take all the blame (read accountability) because their role is responsible all the time. Clearly this is not sustainable nor even reasonable.

But we picked you for the leadership role because you were the right person for the role. Without good leadership we would have chaos, certainly more than we currently do! Leadership, in my view, has a sense of nobility about it. So, thank you for leading. We need you to lead.

I don’t claim to have the panacea to solve for this. It is a particularly hard time to be a leader. Here are five ideas I am sharing in regular conversations with leaders that might help navigate these times.

1. Optimising your own health will optimise your leadership. Full stop.

Yes, many leaders and their teams are in lock down, partial lock down, hybrid working conditions or re embracing full freedoms, depending on what geography you are in. Repeated lock downs have forced many people to abandon previous useful habits, including exercise and reflection-based habits. If this has happened for you as a leader, then recreate those habits. Make that a priority, to whatever degree you can. If you are at home and need to help school younger children, this is made more difficult for sure. One leader shared with me that she ‘did a contra deal’ with her neighbour to supervise each other’s children for an hour each day to allow the other person some time to exercise. “This took extra organisation for sure, but the personal benefits showed up within days”, she says. (She is not based in Sydney where the current lock down laws prohibit this!). The physical and cognitive benefits of physical exercise are well documented. The antidote to mental stress that exercise can provide is also well known. Building (or rebuilding) in a 30 minute or more exercise session every day will go a long way to optimising you, which can only help in your leadership role. If nothing else just go for a walk. Everyone can make time for that.

“…..the starting point in this conversation is the leader to not feel they must carry everything on their shoulders. We never put ‘Godlike’, in the job description when we promoted you to that role…..!”

2. Can you find travel time in your diary - even if working from home?

One very noticeable change to senior leaders and especially CEO leader’s diaries, is the lack of international or long-distance travel. Despite the often-assumed glamour “flying in the pointy end” has, regular flying typically only brings jet lag and high frequent flyer points. But it also brings a forced cocoon of silence which enables reflection and thinking time. Many leaders have realised that they had built up useful habits while travelling or on the commute home from daily work and used that time for reflection on their overall day or the leadership impact they had throughout that day. The temptation when working in a hybrid or forced to work in a non-office environment, is the periods of time dedicated to reflection are tied to an anchor such as travel, and therefore don’t happen any longer. Yet the process itself is very useful. One leader told me he now blocks out his workday diary with appointments called “travel time’, so that no one can book in another video meeting into that slot. He then uses that to catch up on reading, listening to a podcast episode or for self-reflection on his leadership.

3. Where are you spending your time?

We are in a very unusual global moment in time and this time too will pass. We have already seen changes in many parts of the US and UK as cities start to open, notwithstanding that no country is immune to potential changes with this pandemic. But I am noticing many leaders are getting stuck by continuing dealing with the immediate and urgent and forgetting to get ready for what’s after the current point in time. Check your diaries.

How much time is spent in the immediate/urgent, versus the normal BAU business versus directing the business to future horizons? One leadership team I work with re organised themselves into three ‘task forces’ which sat over their functional roles. Those three areas were a Crisis Team, a BAU Team and a “Direct the Future” Team. It allows them to lead all aspects of the business, trust each other to contribute to their own ‘task force’ and to minimise each leader becoming consumed with trying to do everything. In a sector that remains in complete lock down, this action has given all the senior leaders breathing space and comfort knowing that the role of leadership was distributed.

4. Give certainty where you can, followed by hope with a dash of clarity.

One of the human lessons we are all learning in this global experiment is how random life is and how little control we really have. We are living out the VUCA acronym that was bandied about for so many years. We are also learning as leaders that we are expected to know a whole lot more answers that we possibly can. Our teams want certainty, clarity, hope and they want it now. Our media are not helping by blaming political leaders for their lack of clarity on potential freedom days and life returning to normal. The reality is life is not returning to what we understood it to be, at least not fully.

So, what can you do? Giving as much certainty, hope and points of clarity are the areas in need by most people. One CEO we worked with found her organisation appreciated enormously when she was able to say,

Here is what we know for sure and therefore here is what we are going to do. We don’t know X and X but we are working off these assumptions until we find out more. Based on those assumptions we will proceed with XX and XX. We hope that YY will happen, of course, and we will celebrate if / when that occurs. But for absolute clarity here is our current plan and the expectations of you / us in that plan.”

5. What is the role of followership?

My increasing concern for leadership is that we are putting all responsibility and accountability into the role of leader. We have opened the doors to multi way conversations between leaders and the organisations, quite rightly. We encourage feedback for leaders for them to understand the impact they have, quite rightly. Leaders host many communication events to ensure the organisation at wide is kept up to date, again quite rightly so. But society at large is moving to a place where anyone can throw stones (metaphorically of course) at leaders from any position or platform the like, for any mistake the leader is deemed to have made. ‘Gotcha type’ journalism is designed to blame and hang out to dry leaders, particularly leaders of political persuasions, on a daily basis, or so it seems. We are become an unforgiving bunch, us humans!

Leaders are not in a vacuum. The leadership system in any organisation has multiple players including followers. Followership is not a passive act, certainly not anymore.

In the current environment the starting point in this conversation is the leader to not feel they must carry everything on their shoulders. We never put ‘Godlike’, in the job description when we promoted you to that role! Take that mantle off, it is not helping you. The next step is to remind your teams that you and they are all in this together. No one has all the answers in an ever-changing pandemic induced environment. Good solutions are co-created not necessarily only leader led.

“…society at large is moving to a place where anyone can throw stones (metaphorically of course) at leaders from any position or platform the like, for any mistake the leader is deemed to have made…”

It’s really hard being a leader right now

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