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In a Crisis, Who Does a Leader Turn To? 


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As a coach, I have been privileged to work with some truly great leaders who managed teams in a way that their chosen leaders became the engine of success. In fact, one of them had this to say after a coaching engagement: “As a leader, my biggest lesson was that I belong to the team and not the other way round.” 

Many of us would have seen that amazing video of President APJ Abdul Kalam describing his tryst with his boss Prof. Satish Dhawan, the well-known aerospace scientist. I suggest you take another look at the video below and then juxtapose the quote from the above paragraph. Had Prof. Dhawan not believed in this maxim, he couldn’t have done what he did for Kalam. 

Today, when the whole world is facing one crisis after another, leaders would find themselves facing that dreaded situation of not having precedents to follow. Those in mid-management can chat with their superiors, but whom do they then reach out to? As renowned CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith says, “This is not the time for happy talk. People prefer authenticity in tough times. They don’t want pep talk or motivational rallies…” 

So, the leader would have to take some tough calls, but do it in the most sensitive manner that they can muster up. Showing empathy in words is one thing but living it up through actions is what the teams would truly appreciate. The purpose of this piece is to provide some options to leaders that can make their interactions truly engaging and heartfelt. 

For starters, now is the time to give up a cliched approach of telling a teammate that you know how she feels and then following it up with stories of how you felt in a crisis. This may or may not resonate with the other person, which means it could be better to leave out your story at this juncture or even the suggestions that one needs to be tough etc. Because, this could take you into a parent-child relationship whereas the need of the hour is a chat between equals.  

Giving suggestions is another strict no-no, especially if not asked for. What worked for the goose may not work for the gander and in an hour of crisis, if you cannot make a difference it is better to say so, remember the authenticity bit that Marshall mentions? The situation today is such that it presents leaders with two choices – bad and worse. And accepting this is critical.

So, what is it that a leader can actually do? Just listen. And ask questions that could help the person probe deeper into herself for the answers. Marshall calls them coaching questions and there is none better than,”Where are we going? And Where do you think we should be going?” These two questions could sum up every strategic discussion that a leader is bound to have. 

If the leader has these conversations with each of her direct reports and then encourages them to do the same, managing the tough times could get a tad easier. Of course, the situation would remain unchanged, but it would give teams greater resilience to take it on, focusing not always on the outcomes but the processes. Because, this situation isn’t one of our making and where we cannot control things, we need to let it go. Brooding over it just takes away our energy and curtails our ability to act in the present. 

And leaders can do exactly that by offering support to the other person by keeping the focus of conversations around them. 

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