Episode: The One Trait You Need to Lead Through Crisis
Megan Hyatt Miller: Hi, I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Larry Wilson: And I’m Larry Wilson.
Megan: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today we’re talking about something every leader in the world is concerned about right now: crisis leadership.
Larry: Oh my word, are we ever concerned with it. We have had crisis on crisis, and we shouldn’t even chuckle about it, because they’re tragic and upsetting and upending our lives and our businesses. I know, aside from all of that, it is a real point of challenge for leaders. You really don’t know if you’re moving in the right direction. It’s hard to know. You can’t tell how people are reacting to your leadership. It really can be a time of insecurity. It’s very tempting to double down on authority to make sure people are doing what you’d like them to do. It’s just a hugely stressful time to be in leadership.
Megan: It really is. I think stressful is the word for it. We’ve all felt it. In fact, I think we’re probably chronically stressed as leaders in this sustained season of crisis after crisis after crisis. But we have a little secret for you. Your primary capital as a leader, especially during a crisis, is actually not your authority. We all think it’s our authority and our position, but it’s not. Your primary capital is actually you. When people trust you, then they’re going to follow you. It’s really that simple. It’s not about your position; it’s about who you are. We’re going to get into talking about that in some ways that I think you’re going to find really empowering.
Larry: So, today we’re saying that in crisis you need to shift from building your authority to building relationships, and trust is the gold standard for leadership in any crisis. We have four traits you need to develop in order to gain the trust of those who are following you. Let’s get to the first trait, which is empathy.
Megan: This is a really important one, because this is kind of the utmost of the soft skills you hear about when you hear people talk about soft skills in leadership. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the people you serve. Leaders are almost always outward focused and future focused. We’re looking outside of our organizations at markets, competition, opportunities, and threats, and we’re looking for ways to get from here to there.
Not surprisingly, when you hear that list, you might think it’s kind of hard for a leader to develop the ability to empathize, because you’re just not focused on the relational aspect naturally. You’re so big‑picture focused it can be really difficult. But empathy has often been described as the ability to sit with the people you lead and understanding what they’re experiencing, understanding how it feels, understanding what they need. Empathy matters because it’s a hallmark of relational leadership.
I’ll tell you what. If you really want people to trust you… If they don’t know that you care about them, they’re not going to follow you. They’re not ultimately going to be able to trust you. They’re going to question your motives. They might even feel used at some level. They don’t want to be, for example, used for their labor but not valued as a contributor. They don’t want to be expendable or just a resource that can be kind of used up and discarded.
People want to work with and for people who are dedicated to a purpose greater than themselves. After all, nobody wants to work for a narcissist. We probably all have had that experience in our past. If you’ve had that experience, it’s terrible, and there’s nothing that will make you not want to be that person more than having that in your past. I think it was Bill Clinton who was famous for saying, “I feel your pain.” It has kind of become a cliché, but I think it’s needed.
For example, I remember, Larry, when at Michael Hyatt & Company we were at the beginning stages, which now feels like years ago, of the pandemic. We’ve talked about this in other episodes of the podcast, but when we were doing our messaging, kind of drafting that and figuring out how we wanted to talk about these issues to our team, we were really aware of the fact that the fears they had or the concerns they had were different from ours.
The only way you’re able to know that is by putting yourself in a position of empathy, by asking yourself, “Okay. How is my team experiencing this? How is this person who works for me…? What is this like for them? What are they scared about? What do they want to have happen? What do they not want to have happen?” So this whole concept of empathy is really important if you’re going to build a foundation of trust.
Larry: Empathy matters, and I think leaders will get that, even if it doesn’t come naturally to them, but how do you develop empathy if that’s not in your wheelhouse?
Megan: That’s a really good question. The truth is the things most of us are the most empathetic about are related to something we’ve experienced. If you’ve had cancer, for example, you’re going to be naturally so much more empathetic if you have a team member come and tell you they’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I think what we have to be really conscious of are areas where we don’t have the ability to have natural empathy from our own personal experience.
The crisis we’re currently in as we’re recording this is a crisis of racial justice in America. We’ve all seen it on the news. We’ve had several tragic police shootings. We’ve had riots. We’ve had calls for reform. All kinds of things are happening right now, and a lot of that is moving us, hopefully, to a more just place. But if you’re a leader and you have African-American team members or people of color on your team, you may be tempted to communicate that you understand what they’re going through.
Of course, if you’re white, the truth is you don’t understand what they’re going through, and it’s actually insulting to say that you understand what they’re going through. I think all of us have been in a position before where someone has said that to us when we knew they had no idea what we were experiencing, and it just feels so empty and hollow.
I think the solution to that is not to kind of fake it like you understand it, but it’s actually to try to create some kind of a proxy for the experience by educating yourself. For example, reading, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries. We talked about that in one of our previous episodes, gave some recommendations for that. Those are great ways to have a better appreciation.
It’s not the same thing as having had the experience yourself, but you can have a better appreciation of what this experience is like, what it’s like for an African-American person when a police officer shoots an African-American person. What does that feel like? That’s different than maybe what you’ve experienced if you’re white. So, educating yourself is really important.
I also think listening is really important. In order to ask someone a vulnerable question, like, “What was that like for you?” or “How are you experiencing this?” it’s important to remember that you have to have a certain level of equity in the relationship to begin with. If you’ve never had a conversation more than “How are your kids doing in their sports?” or something like that, something superficial, you don’t want to presume that you have the right to ask someone really vulnerable questions.
But if you have some kind of a relationship, creating space and asking the question and then just being quiet and listening can be really powerful too. So, I think that education and listening are probably the best ways to develop empathy, and also the ability to just be quiet. I mean, that’s a hard one. That’s a hard one for me, and I think it’s a hard one for most leaders. We’re used to talking, not listening. But it’s really important.
Larry: Megan, as you offer that list of things to do to be empathetic and develop empathy, I can imagine a lot of us saying, “Well, I think I’m pretty good at that.” How do you really understand whether you are an empathetic leader or you’re seen in a very different light?
Megan: Well, I was actually having a conversation with someone on our team about this today. We were talking about responses to this whole crisis of racial justice that has come to light. It’s not new, but it’s something that some of us are just becoming aware of at a new level. We were talking about public acknowledgment of that at an organizational level and how people are doing it well and how people are not doing it well.
She was talking about an organization she was involved with and how they had been really hesitant to speak directly to the issue. They were kind of soft-pedaling it. They didn’t want to speak explicitly about it. In this particular conversation around race, this is one of the mistakes white people make. They are uncomfortable with using explicit language, talking specifically about the black or African‑American community or saying the names of those who’ve been killed by police, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, etcetera.
We didn’t use this language, but we were talking about how part of communicating empathy is acknowledging with explicit language (meaning, really clear; you’re really speaking to it, you’re being bold) the experience someone has. Not that you’re kind of faking that it has been your experience, but you are honoring the experience by speaking about it directly as opposed to some anemic response that doesn’t have any real acknowledgment of the suffering the people who are following you are experiencing.
I think that’s one of the ways we have the rubber meet the road in this conversation about empathy: we give voice to the experience of other people while being clear that that’s not our own experience and not trying to co-opt it in some way. Doing it with humility, maybe saying, “There’s so much I don’t understand, but I really appreciate this,” and then specifically naming things that have happened, can be a really good way to communicate empathy that resonates with people who are experiencing it.
Larry: So, the first trait in developing trust as a leader is empathy. People want to know that you understand them and that you see them where they are. The second trait is transparency.
Megan: This is important because we’ve all had this experience…politics is the thing that comes to mind…where you just feel like you don’t know all of the facts. You feel like someone is hiding something or you just can’t trust that what you see is what you get. Transparency is about candor, which applies both to the person and the organization.
Personally, it means I’m being open about how this crisis affects you or affects me. I’m just being direct and straightforward. I’m not spinning. I’m not trying to twist things for my advantage. I’m just being direct. But for the business or organization, it’s providing as much information to the team as you can.
So, to go back to the COVID-19 example, when we were in the early days of figuring out what the impact of that was going to be to our business… “How much of an impact is this going to have? What is it going to mean for our team members?” It was really important to us to share our financial results with the team, both good and bad.
It was really important for us to talk about layoffs and the fact that we were not planning on doing those. At the same time, we weren’t promising that we would never do them. That, of course, was dependent on our circumstances. It could have been a different reality that we were going to need to do that. That could have been our reality, as it was for many people.
So, just having a way of communicating, where people understand that what comes out of your mouth is the absolute truth, that they’re getting all the information. There doesn’t need to be a side conversation. They’re not being lied to. It doesn’t mean you have all of the answers or that you’re some kind of clairvoyant. That’s not realistic, especially in a crisis, but you tell people what you know and what they need to know to have confidence in your trustworthiness.
Larry: I’d like to go back to the point you made about candor applying to both the person and the organization. I think there’s a sense in which people don’t want to know how scared the leader really is. Can you tell me how to guard this line between being revealing about the fact that “Hey, I’m a little shocked by this too” and not conveying a feeling of panic to the people who are looking to you for leadership?
Megan: Well, you’re right. That’s a really hard question to answer, and it’s a fine line to walk as a leader. If you communicate that you have no anxiety, no fear, you’re 100 percent confident, that’s going to resonate as false with people. They’re going to see right through that. They’re not going to be able to trust it because it doesn’t align with reality. On the other hand, as a leader, it is your job to get a plan. It is your job to see into the future. It is your job to kind of go first.
So, there’s a place for acknowledging that you have some anxiety, that you have some fear. “We’re in uncertain times. We’re not sure what this means, and as the leader, I am taking responsibility for creating a path forward for us, and here’s what we’re doing for that.” My job is, in large part, to give my team confidence about the things we have control over without pretending that we have control over things we don’t have control over. This is more art than science. It’s not like there’s some super prescriptive formula for doing this in a way that it works every time. I think you just have to feel your way through it. But I do think those are important things to balance.
Larry: Nobody wants to hear, “Hey, everything is fine. Just trust me. We’ll be good,” but they still need to have some confidence that you, as the leader, are on the job, working on a plan, and that you’re going to move people forward.
Megan: One of the things I just thought of that I want to make sure to mention before we move on from this is that candor, or transparency, is not just important in a crisis and it’s not just important in an organization for the leader. It’s also important in your interpersonal relationships. This could be as a supervisor. This could be in a marriage. This could be in a friendship. This really applies to every kind of relationship.
One of the things people need to know if they’re going to trust you and be vulnerable with you and follow you places is that what they see is what they get. For example, we’ve probably all had a boss who every time you asked, “Hey, how am I doing?” or submitted something they requested from you, they were always positive about it, and in your heart you kind of knew, “Hmm. I feel like that’s just too consistent. There’s never any constructive feedback. He or she can’t always think I do such a great job. It just feels like I’m not really getting any feedback.”
One of the things there has been some good research on is that people do best, particularly in professional environments, where they get feedback, constructive feedback that has their best interests in mind but that gives them honest feedback. “Here’s what you could do better next time to make this great” or “Here’s what you did really well,” whether it’s positive or negative.
People need to know that if there’s a problem, you’re going to tell them about it, because what nobody wants is to be surprised. They think everything is fine, and then all of a sudden, one day they just get fired because, apparently, they weren’t doing a good job, but their boss never talked to them about it until the day they sat them down to have that conversation because, basically, they were too cowardly to be candid or transparent in their communication style.
Larry: So, a real point of challenge and growth for some leaders outside of crisis. This kind of candor and being appropriately transparent is just good for leaders. So, the first trait for building trust in your leadership is empathy. The second trait is transparency. That brings us to the third trait: follow-through.
Megan: This is the hard one. This is the one I think is maybe the most important but the most challenging for leaders. As a leader, speaking for myself, I’m in the future. I’m great on the front end of a project. I love to start things. My attention is always in the future, so sometimes remembering things I’ve committed to in the past is more challenging for me. But this is where you build trust: doing what you say you’re going to do. It’s really simple, but it’s really hard to follow through on. I think this is where we get frustrated with our politicians. They have all of these campaign promises, and then nothing ever happens on the other side.
What people need to know… If I tell you, Larry, that I’m going to… You know, just in a small thing. If I’m going to send you a link to an article that maybe we mentioned off air while we were recording, if I don’t do that, that dings my trust with you. You’re going to trust me less, even if you don’t realize it, than if I had sent that to you. This is one of those things that’s easy to dismiss as small or not that important, but people are paying attention to what you do after you say you’re going to do something. It’s something we need to give our attention to.
Larry: Again, Megan, I can probably hear some leaders thinking, “I do that. I am very consistent in follow-through.” Is it possible people develop blind spots here and ways they’re not consistent that they think they really are?
Megan: One of the things I know I have said in my own head as a justification is “Oh well. Larry probably didn’t really care about that link. I just mentioned it offhand. It’s not really an important thing to do.” In and of itself, maybe that’s true, but the truth is when people are on your team… If you’re a leader, everything you do is more important to the people underneath you than it is to you, because our actions are outsized as leaders. So, it may seem like not that big of a deal to me. It may actually be a really big deal to the people I’m leading. I can really get myself in trouble if I minimize or dismiss or don’t take seriously the things I say.
This is going to sound like a shameless plug. It’s not. But this is why I write stuff down in my Full Focus Planner. In fact, I had a one-on-one meeting this morning with a team member who had been away on maternity leave for a while, so we had a lot of stuff to talk about and catch up on. I wrote down like six or seven things that in our conversation I told her I would do, you know, a follow-up meeting or something I was going to send her, because I thought, “Man! I have to write this down. My memory is not that great, and if I don’t write it down, I’m not going to remember, and that is going to ding my trust.”
Larry: So, especially for crisis leadership, what are some of the key ways that leaders need to be sure they follow through?
Megan: Well, for example, if you said at the beginning or early on in the crisis that you were not going to do layoffs and people could just not worry about it, if all of a sudden you realize, “No, we are going to have to do layoffs,” you have to follow through on that original conversation. Come back to it and be bold and say, “Guys, I know I said we weren’t going to do this, and that was my sincere commitment, and we worked really hard to make that happen. However, there are some things that have changed.” Be very direct about it. “And here’s what we’re going to have to do.” You’re going to have to have that kind of a conversation.
If you have to change other benefits or maybe your bonus plan is going to have to change because of this crisis, the pandemic we’re in, an economic crisis… You’ve made a commitment to people that they, in good faith, committed to and were aligned with at the beginning of the year, and if that changed, you have to speak directly to that. You can’t just kind of move past it like it’s not a thing or they should know that. That is their livelihood.
I think there are many situations like that, where you’ve made some kind of a commitment or you’ve made some kind of a statement and something may have changed. In a crisis, this happens a lot. You’re just going to have to expect that things are going to change. You have to come back around and close the loop. I think that’s another way of thinking about follow-through: closing the loops.
Larry: So, the third trait in developing trust in your leadership is follow-through. Let’s get to the fourth and final one for today, which is vision.
Megan: This is so important. As a reminder, people are following you, and they’re following you somewhere. If they’re going to follow you somewhere, then you have to have a compelling picture of a better future that you’re leading them to. The truth is the definition is the same as when you’re not in a crisis. This is all about a destination, but the sense of urgency is way up, because everybody is asking, “What’s next?” especially if, like most of us in 2020, we don’t really want to be in this part of 2020 indefinitely. This has been a really hard year so far.
There are a lot of great things that are hopefully coming out of it, but it has been tough. So, what is beyond this? Where are we going? You want to look at the relatively short term, like two to maybe four or five months, but then what about three to five years? How are we going to transcend this crisis, and where are we going, and how is this helping to shape who we’re becoming along the way? Those are the kinds of things people need to hear from you on to have confidence and trust in your leadership.
Larry: We talk a lot about vision here at Michael Hyatt & Company, so I know a lot of our listeners have been working on a very clear vision for their future following the vision scripting process in Michael’s book The Vision Driven Leader, but the crisis has upended all of that. So, what do you do if you’re in crisis leadership? People want a vision. They want that pathway to the future, but it has kind of been cast into doubt. Where next?
Megan: Well, first of all, if that’s your experience, that’s really normal. That’s true for everybody right now. That’s maybe the first impulse you would have. It may sound funny to say this, but if you don’t have a clearly articulated vision for your organization or your company, this is actually the perfect time to do it, because there’s something about being in crisis that brings a lot of clarity once the dust starts to settle.
For example, in The Vision Driven Leader, we have the vision script that’s a part of that. It’s a template for building a vision for your company or your organization. This is a great time to dig into that, to put some thought behind it. If you’ve already done this or you have some version of that, you want to ask questions like, “Does it still fit? Does this vision still ring true? Does the timeline still work? Is it still relevant?”
Then review your strategy, because while your vision may not have changed very much, especially if you really dug in and did that work initially and it was really clear and compelling, the strategy for how to get there in this ocean of crises probably has changed. I know that’s true for us at Michael Hyatt & Company, and it’s probably true for you too. It’s probably going to accelerate some changes. It’s probably going to slow some things down. It’s probably going to bring up some new opportunities you haven’t even thought of.
All of that is great, but the questions you want to answer and make sure this is trued up to now is “Where are we going, and how will we get there?” Those are really important questions to answer. When your team knows, they’re going to be empowered to trust you at a new level, because people want to go somewhere. They want to have confidence that you’re taking them somewhere they want to go.
Larry: Vision is the critical part of leadership at any time but especially in a crisis. People are future focused. They want a way forward, and they look to the leader to give them that, and they’ll trust the one who can provide it.
Megan: I think that’s true, too, Larry, because we’re also in the midst of chaos, and a leader has the ability to provide order. A vision is part of how we create order in the midst of chaos and a sense of certainty for people, and that’s just a basic human need people have and one of the things, as leaders, we’re uniquely positioned to speak into.
Larry: Vision is a way of saying, “Everything is going to be okay. We are going to make it. There will be a preferred future at some point.” Well, today we’ve learned that trust is the essential ingredient for crisis leadership, and there are four key traits that make for trust in a leadership relationship:
That all adds up to trust, which is the leader’s primary capital. Megan, final thoughts today?
Megan: Thanks for that recap, Larry. If you’re leading in the midst of this crisis, like so many of us are, and this is resonating with you, one of the action steps you could take is just ask yourself, “Okay. Which of these four traits do I already possess and I feel like I’m strong in, and which ones do I really need to go to work on?” For most of us, there are one or two on this list that could use some work, that we could really grow in and our teams would benefit from if we did.
So that would be my encouragement to you. You’re probably already good at some of these, but there are probably some you need to give some attention to, and I think if you’ll do this work… One of the great gifts of these crises we’re in the midst of is that we have a chance to grow in certain parts of our leadership that in normal times are not that critical. I think right now is a time when trust matters almost more than anything else, so this is a great opportunity to develop that part of your leadership that will pay dividends for years and years to come.
Larry: Well, thank you, Megan, for candid thoughts on the subject of crisis leadership and very practical suggestions, and thank you all for joining us today. We’ll see you right back here next week. Until then, lead to win.