Despite all the promises in popular leadership books, the thinking around leadership has made it harder for leaders to lead. Even before COVID-19, writers had diminished leadership by urging leaders to be authentic, to be servants, to be totally (and therefore untruthfully) responsible, be humble, respect everyone’s autonomy, and seek consensus. In short, writers have advised leaders to adopt the virtues of ordinary, nice, responsible people. The academic world has mostly defined leadership down to influence. Thus, anyone can be a leader, and leadership takes place at all levels of an organisation.
COVID-19 and the response of working virtually has made leadership even harder in three ways. First, with the increasing numbers of virtual meetings and clogged schedules, leaders are called on to be increasingly reactive. Second, in virtual meetings, people are easily distracted, listen to hear only what they expect to hear, and can secretly and easily ignore the video talking head. It’s an environment that requires leaders to perform at new heights of dramatic articulateness. Third, the casualness of yesterday is gone. To exert their moral authority virtually, leaders must establish that necks are on the line, that something must be done in the meeting, and they need to do that in a mood that makes others want to join in the distress and hard decision-making. These are knotty problems, but here are three first-aid remedies.
Leaders become reactive when subordinates fire one challenge after another at them. Insist instead that for each challenge raised, you want to hear at least two different, credible solutions proposed and that you want to hear each participant evaluate the competing proposals. That way, new insights will arise.
Of course, the urgency of a clogged schedule makes it difficult to listen to alternative proposals in a meeting. Fight this by raising the responsibility for careful listening to all participants in all meetings. If you’re answering a question twice or, worse, holding the same meeting twice, express disappointment at the level of listening. Expect people to ask questions if they don’t understand, and do it in the meeting. How many meetings have you seen people say ‘yes’ to something they do not remotely understand? They just want to move on.
Write a paragraph or two or three on the reason for the meeting, the challenge you’re facing, the time of the opportunity for a response, what you want participants to do, and the outcome you’re seeking. If you have a coach, mentor, or good adviser, talk over your thoughts. Then look at how to say those thoughts as boldly as you can. Bold expressions (even if a little exaggerated) pull people out of their own heads. They keep people listening. Boldness comes before transparency; heat before light.
To fight distraction, call on people to respond. You might feel like a school teacher. So be it. Distraction destroys leadership. Don’t put up with blather. Call it out. Don’t be polite. How many times have you seen a manager in a meeting filibuster to avoid a direct answer?
A leader’s moral authority comes from the difficult decisions the leader makes and executes. When people are working together, such decisions are the source of formal and much more informal conversations. Whether managers praise or deplore the decision, the leader is acknowledged as such. Those informal conversations are enormously diminished, as is attention to the leader making a decision in a virtual meeting.
Make virtual meetings places where the leader and team face challenges and make decisions. Lead cascade meetings where decisions are announced with only a little justification and some questions and answers. Leaders who justify too much lose their moral authority.
Manage the mood of meetings. With all the distractions facing participants and poor listening, it’s easy for a leader to feel weariness, frustration, resignation, and even petulance. Develop a large set of stories about corporate success in a can-do mood and turn to one of those stories when the meeting begins to decay into a poor mood.
At VISION, we call these the ‘first-aid techniques for maintaining leadership in a virtual world’. Beyond first aid, we offer leaders programs on listening for difference and our famous 555 for making sure meeting participants make clear and binding commitments, as well as mood assessment and management, among others. We always work to bring out the distinctive leadership style of either the leader or the leadership team. Get in touch to find out more.
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