Effective Leadership in Turbulent Times

Effective Leadership in Turbulent Times

In Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership, Author and Leading Executive Coach Ruchira Chaudhary unpacks the critical role of leadership and coaching in turbulent times. Ruchira's new book contains valuable insights drawing on lessons from interviews with successful leaders worldwide. 

Effective Leadership in Turbulent Times

In June 1966, Robert F. Kennedy said in a speech in Cape Town, ‘Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.’ You may be familiar with this apocryphal Chinese curse that sounds like a blessing or a warm wish but is used ironically to indicate a period of chaos or disorder. I cannot think of a better analogy to describe the uncertainty of mammoth proportions we face today, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the work front, virtually overnight, the economic shock gave rise to a new reality that caused much stress and anxiety, leaving everyone bewildered. The work from home (WFH) phenomenon is now becoming our new normal; we may have settled into a routine of sorts, but the underlying duress, angst and the occasional panic attack is not going away. Today, more than ever, leaders must discern, adapt to and shape this shifting terrain. It is about balancing many fronts: A leader needs to focus on employee well-being yet drive business results; he needs to provide clarity despite not knowing enough and, above all, he needs to project confidence despite knowing harsh business realities. It’s also a time for displaying resilience, bouncing back and building agility that will help weather this storm professionally and personally.

A Time for Uncommon Leadership 

Bouncing Back and Leaping Forward 

First, leaders need to build higher levels of resilience in themselves and their teams by taking charge of how they think about misfortune, crisis and adversity. Defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, or the ability to deal with a crisis situation or to quickly attain the pre-crisis status, resilience is perhaps the most essential ingredient in this leadership mix today. Resilient managers need to be nimble and show swiftness in taking decisions (even when they do not know the answers) and move from analysis to a plan of action (and reaction). It’s about shifting your thinking gears from what caused this crisis to how we fix it. Essentially, it is about moving from cause-oriented thinking to response-oriented thinking where the focus is strictly forward-looking.

Defining the end goal or destination first and working backwards to execute the plan will help employees envision the future and is emotionally stabilizing, suggests Punit Renjen, global chief executive officer, Deloitte. He adds, ‘Throughout the pandemic, organizations around the globe have demonstrated remarkable agility, changing business models literally overnight: setting up remote-work arrangements; offshoring entire business processes to less-affected geographies; initiating multi-company cooperation to redeploy furloughed employees across sectors. In each situation, the urgency for results prevailed over traditional bureaucratic responses. These organizations managed to do this because of the resilience of their leaders.’

Building Reservoirs of Trust

Second, leaders have to strengthen the trust equation. Trust, a seemingly abstract, ethereal concept, is critical for you to forge genuine bonds with the teams you lead. In times of crisis, as you lead through uncertainty, you need people to follow, and that can happen only if they believe in you, are inspired by you and are nurtured by trust. Research demonstrates that trust yields real results in terms of economic growth, increased shareholder value and innovation, greater community stability and better health outcomes. ‘From an employee perspective, consider that more than 60 per cent of workers say senior management–employee trust is paramount to their satisfaction. That’s because high-trust environments allow people to be their true selves, and when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are not only more creative, but more productive as well.’ Many leaders have done a phenomenal job of gaining this trust by deftly navigating the pandemic, despite the chaos, the unknown variables and the conflicting guidance at the start of the outbreak. They can continue to earn this trust by thinking of how they can rebuild a safe space for their people when they return to work (literally and metaphorically), how they stretch themselves to find the time to coach and guide in these uncertain times, and how they do their best to preserve jobs rather than cutting organization costs in the face of imminent losses. Therefore, trust is as important in a professional relationship as it is in a personal one. When leaders, despite their crazy schedules, find the time to check in on their people, they create with them a personal equation, based on trust.

Topics like grief are seldom discussed at work. In fact, more often than not, we don’t even know if we should discuss such topics. Leaders, mental health experts and coaches are now all telling us that it is okay to say you are not okay. Feelings of grief, loneliness and disconnection are real. It’s okay to respond by saying, ‘Actually, I am going completely crazy handling work, household chores, a young child and caring for the elderly.’ Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this pandemic is the open-endedness of it. If it were a temporary state, we could say aloud, ‘This too shall pass, hang in there.’ If we knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and we would eventually emerge from the long dark tunnel and soon there would be bright sunshine, things would have been very different. As a leader, it is a testing time for you. It is about maintaining the right balance and remaining focused on moving forward amid destabilizing uncertainty. That means helping your employees navigate complex emotions—grief, stress, loneliness—that most of us simply are not accustomed to in the workplace, at least at the scale we are experiencing now.

Excerpt from 'Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership' by author Ruchira Chaudhary with permission from Penguin Random House India