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Uncertain Times? Why leaders need to stop following and start leading

There are no prizes for guessing that we live in unprecedented, uncertain times. However, the real issue to consider is our own unique leadership responses and actions as we move out of “crisis”. It seems many leaders are not challenging “the truths” of this new normality, not doing enough to get back to the necessities of social interaction and are seemingly comfortable with the default setting of “work from home” online and falling for the influence of social media. In short, it’s time to follow less and lead more.

Leaders are paid to deal with uncertainty, we take risks, step outside our comfort zone and challenge the status quo as well as current thinking. Our understanding of leadership means that we ensure that those around us feel safe but we also create spaces that they to grow and evolve.

At times of crisis, of course, we always need to take stock, calibrate and re-steady the ship but once this moment passes we need to look to the learning of the past with the benefits of the new. I wonder whether we have forgotten the simple principles of change management and in our panic have forgotten the real meaning of leadership.

I wonder if we are following the “new normality” narrative too passively and if are we actually leading in the real sense of the word?. It seems many of us are playing it safe or “following” others when it’s the time to make our own decisions and to lead more. As the year comes to an end it can be argued that three basic behaviours should be a leadership priority for everyone.

1. Get back to face to face-sooner rather than later

The ‘new normality’ of working from home may provide some initial benefits and indeed many companies have a business agenda that suits this current state. However, the human costs of this status quo are compelling economically, spiritually, psychologically, physically and emotionally. We all need social interaction, even those who consider themselves introverts are emotional creatures. We also know that motion equals emotion so we need to get moving.

We should take precautions of course but we have to get out there doing what humans have done for years-interacting-sooner rather than later. A meal in a restaurant with friends beats home delivery every time, the feeling of jumping on a plane on a new adventure or holiday trumps virtual journeys, without doubt, live music streaming doesn’t compare with experiencing the sights and sounds of a festival or concert. Moreover, the Monday morning conversation over a coffee with colleagues always wins over the dreaded Zoom meeting, classroom education for our kids provide stimuli that computer screens never can do, online training can never compete with the sensory learning of being in a room with others. Emotional intelligence and well-being of our workforce, families and friends are becoming critical. So leaders need to find a way of making sure this is a priority.

2. Change your thinking – change the narrative

Globally It seems that the only major talking points nowadays is Coronavirus and the Black lives matter movement. Of course, these are important issues but we need to constantly be challenging these “truths”, we need to be having rational debates about them, modifying and making them relevant for us in our unique context. Leaders don’t just don’t follow “truths” they challenge them. Too many blindly accept everything without question if it is packaged nicely. As leaders, we also need to remember that these two narratives are not the only stories in town. What are the other areas that require our thoughts and ‘attention? whether it be professional development, gender, the environment, human trafficking, animal welfare, other human health issues, corruption, poverty and exploitation in all its forms?. These issues haven’t gone away and seem to have been relegated in importance. We must keep them on top of our leadership agenda.

3. Stop clicking ”like”

One increasingly clear thing is that we live in a social media world of “Scan, click and like”. The last six months, since the onset of Coronavirus, our online consumption of social media has meant our Pavlovian responses have increased exponentially. What is also worrying is the increasing presence of social media gurus influencing our thinking and actions, through their carefully crafted marketing ideas and “clever” videos. It’s amazing how susceptible we are to this new wave of influence especially in times of uncertainty when the “certainties ” they sell are so emotionally compelling. It’s a wonderful leadership exercise next time you hear a story, look at an Inspirational quote or quirky video online to take a minute and ask what is she/he really saying or does this perspective make sense on a rational level to me-often you’ll find that the desire to click “like” or worse still, the desire to “follow” passes. Better still dig a bit deeper and google the backgrounds of Robbins, Sinek, Maxwell, Blanchard et al and perhaps our “positive “leadership perspectives on them might just change.

We are in a world where personal and leadership accountability and responsibility matter. As we negotiate these challenging times its imperative that we take time out to look at the leadership we are living and doing both personally and professionally, whether that’s working from home or in the office. We need to reflect on the difference we are making as individuals and to recreate a commitment to start truly leading and stop following.