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Forget Heroes. We Need Our Leaders to Act Small


Amid the swirl of uncertainty and anxiety, employees are looking for empathy and compassion, not grand gestures

Healthy, strong girl with dumbbell exercise doodle on school chalkboard.

The coronavirus pandemic challenges leaders to step up in the midst of widespread uncertainty. When their employees are going through something this big, the temptation is to act big. A wiser response, says Julian Barling, Borden Chair of Leadership at Smith School of Business, may be to find smaller gestures that show employees that leaders empathize with them. Smith Business Insight talked to Barling about what leaders need to do now.

People in leadership positions may feel overwhelmed during this pandemic. What should their inner voice be telling them?

We experience something this major and think, Am I big enough for the moment? What leaders need to do is unpack what this moment really requires of them. One of the best ways of doing that is to ask yourself what you need from your own leader. What will help you get past the first hurdle, then the second hurdle? What will you need to keep going? Then you can ask, Can I offer that to the people I lead? Lots of leaders realize that yes, they can offer that. 

Overwhelmingly, with perhaps one exception, when we meet leaders after they’ve navigated people through extraordinary times, they tell us that had we asked them a week before if they could successfully lead during a crisis, they would have shaken their heads in disbelief. And the exception? Winston Churchill. When Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he went to bed that night feeling a sense of calm and confidence that he was finally in charge of the war effort. But for everyone else, there’s a wonderful lesson: All too often, we underestimate just how much we can accomplish if we ask ourselves the right questions.

So what’s the question leaders should ask when they’re trying to meet employee expectations?

This is a situation that’s fraught with catastrophizing. Once we start to think about the pandemic, we just make it bigger and bigger in our heads. Instead, what we should ask is, What are the smallest things we can do to pick people up in their worst possible moment, when they’re struggling with doubts and fears? What are the smallest things we can do to support them? You’re not going to change their lives in one interaction, but cumulatively you will have a massive effect.

Most leaders overthink the solution. They believe that extraordinary problems call for extraordinary leadership behaviours. But research suggests that this may not be correct, not even during normal times. 

And once they’re on the right track, keep at it?

Consistency is incredibly important. Consistency of message, consistency of tone. In a world that is largely unpredictable and unknowable, having a consistent relationship helps ground you and offers strength to face those parts that are unpredictable. The consistency comes from leaders who know why they’re there and what they want to do. In general, we underestimate the importance of consistency, and in crises, we vastly underestimate it.

What are the hallmark behaviours of transformational leadership during a large-scale crisis?

Research shows that there are four key behaviours. The first is ethical leadership. It’s an honesty that’s transparent. We don’t need our leaders to simply behave with integrity. We need to see our leaders behave with integrity.

The second is inspirational motivation. Especially during times of crises, people need to feel they have a purpose and to see how much they can help their communities through small acts. During normal times, inspirational motivation is about firing people up and getting them excited about their work. But during crises, inspiration is often about calming people down in the midst of the storm.

The third is clarity of message. Generally during times of crisis, confusion is everywhere. This is just when leaders need to help people think about and better understand the problems facing their organization or community so that they can find innovative solutions. We need people who can boil down material that may be very difficult to understand into something that is clear and focused for people to rally around.

And the final key behaviour is known as relational leadership. This is about compassion and empathy, putting ourselves in our followers’ shoes. This one is puzzling: Leaders generally understand that relational leadership is important, yet workplace surveys suggest that it’s very often missing. 

One research study offered an explanation. It showed that leaders underestimate the positive effects of gratitude and compassion and overestimate how awkward the expressions will make people feel. We believe that if we stop employees and thank them or acknowledge their challenges, they’ll be uncomfortable. Instead, especially in times of crisis, such behaviour from their leaders will leave employees glowing. 

The neat thing that the study found is that when leaders saw how much other people appreciated their gratitude and compassion, they changed their behaviour. They started to express more gratitude and show more compassion.

In these times, leaders may feel the need to put on their firefighting hat and run into the burning building. Can this attitude backfire? 

The term I would use for this is heroic leadership. If you’re doing that, it may work but for a very short period. In the first days of the crisis, we did see it. [B.C. Provincial Health Officer] Bonnie Henry said she didn’t sleep for the first 72 hours of the COVID-19 response. But what we’re facing is a long-term crisis, so that heroic model is just not sustainable. And it may be counterproductive. A grad student shared with me the analogy of being on a flight and there’s bad turbulence. As the adult, you’re told to first put on your mask before helping your children. The reason is that if you don't have enough oxygen, you can’t help anyone. 

Looking after yourself as a leader now is not selfish. It is wise leadership. It is absolutely critical. Sleep, diet, exercise — if somehow you can carve some time out of the days and nights for that, you’re helping everyone else and modeling those behaviors to the people around you.

It also gets to decision making. The heroic leadership model would suggest these outstanding leaders have to make all decisions. But with wise leadership, you realize you don’t need to do everything. You can’t do everything. That’s the model of leadership we want—one that gets its strength from everyone around the leader rather than from those people relying on the leader for everything. In crises, we need broader input of ideas. 

That would seem to set up leaders well post-coronavirus.

Remember, your employees will not hold you accountable for what you couldn’t do. They will hold you accountable for what you could have done but chose not to do. Going forward, they’ll remember and reward you for doing what you didn’t have to do but chose to do anyways. It will mark you as a leader that they want to work for in the future.