Article originally appeared in Forbes on May 13, 2020.
There has been a lot written about virtual team leadership in the weeks since the nature of work has fundamentally changed. Strong leadership is more important than ever. I’ve seen firsthand what constitutes a great leader — in the best of times and in the ones that try us the most. The five following qualities make for great leadership, and the more we cultivate each, the better leaders we will become, during the current crisis and beyond.
Every leader needs to learn the difference between listening and hearing. Hearing is passive; listening is active — and it’s the greatest way to understand what is happening in our organizations.
We often find ourselves thinking about our last conversation or preparing for our next meeting, and we’re not fully engaged with the situation at hand. But real listening requires full engagement. You listen not just with your ears, but with all your senses. Great listeners take cues from body language, facial expressions and gestures. What’s not said is just as important as what is said.
We must create avenues and mechanisms for voices to be heard, especially those who might otherwise not have the courage to speak up. We must keep our minds open. We don’t know all the answers, which means we need to show up uniquely to each conversation, to be intentional in every interaction. This means eliminating distractions and focusing only on the people in front of us. More than ever, we need leaders who listen and are intentional about their interactions.
There is no one-size-fits-all communication strategy, and in order to keep lines open and clear across the business, we must be mindful not just of the messages, but of the mediums, too.
Successful communication begins with transparency. A good leader is honest about what’s known and what’s unknown. While businesses around the world are adapting to the change wrought by the pandemic, great leaders are finding the right balance between hope for the future and the tough decisions of today, such as furloughs and staff reductions.
Our research revealed that nearly two-thirds of employees surveyed believe their company is doing a good job supporting efforts, while 4 in 10 think their company should have acted faster in response to the coronavirus. Employees remain an ever-critical stakeholder as companies navigate the creation of new policies, programs and efforts related to this crisis. Companies that do well in the eyes of employees stand to benefit from increased loyalty, pride and inspiration on the job.
Leaders need to exercise patience and compassion — especially during a time like this — while also being creative and thorough. Different stakeholder groups need different messages across different mediums. A single webinar doesn’t mean you get to check communications off your to-do list. Where else is your message showing up? How are you soliciting questions or feedback?
Remember: Communication is a two-way street, and it’s your job to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
Act Quickly And Confidently
Many leaders talk, but not all leaders do. And it is doing that separates real leaders from the rest. My mother always said, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” There is no way to build credibility without follow-through. People learn to depend on and trust what you say when your words match your actions. It is especially impactful when you act on what you’re hearing from your employees — when they see leaders responding in meaningful ways to their needs or requests.
Leaders who act quickly and confidently often must make difficult decisions, understanding that what’s good for the broader organization sometimes outweighs what’s good for the few. This requires what Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, calls grit. She insists the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent, but a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.
Those leaders who can be certain, decisive and committed to clear objectives, especially during crisis, will continue to build trust in this time of uncertainty.
Bonnie St. John epitomizes resiliency. The first African American to win medals in a Winter Olympic competition, at the 1984 Winter Paralympics, tells this story: “I was ahead in the slalom. But in the second run, everyone fell on a dangerous spot. I was beaten by a woman who got up faster than I did. I learned that people fall down, winners get up, and gold medal winners just get up faster.”
Resilience is the ability to get up faster, to bounce back and reshape. In business, this means handling challenging situations with grace and confidence. It also means learning by failing fast, exercising a willingness to leverage data and course correct.
Resilience is also about self-care. You must give yourself room to deal with disappointment. This is a difficult time. Learning self-care will reinforce resiliency and ensure leaders bounce back stronger than ever.
Model Positive Behavior
Role modeling is a powerful tool for communication. It’s useful as a way to pass on knowledge and skills, and for cultivating culture and belonging. As Seth Godin says, “People like us do things like this.” It’s important to put words to actions, codifying behaviors into values that reach across the business.
In order to role model effectively, leaders need to be acutely aware of what behaviors we’re displaying. This requires real self-awareness and a willingness to analyze our own performance as role models. This is where doing really comes into play. When you do what you say, you build trust and establish credibility — and your employees will emulate your behaviors and actions.
These five key behaviors of great leaders work together like a virtuous circle. And while they’re differentiated from one another in this list, the reality is that they are constantly intersecting and overlapping, each one requiring the next. True leaders are fashioned in times of crisis, and those who can develop their ability to listen fully, communicate clearly, act quickly and confidently, build resiliency, and model positive behaviors will lead well into the future.