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Authentic leadership in uncertain times

The current crisis is forcing leaders to make bold decisions, whilst providing direction, guidance and reassurance on an unclear path. Balancing all the aspects requires slowing down and being flexible to give employees the opportunity to deal with the newly faced challenges. It is also an opportunity to create a deeper connection with people and their work.

Take care of business by taking care of people

The role of the leader during a crisis is to bring their teams into the uncertain future with confidence and prepared for the post-crisis business as usual. Research suggests that leaders who put people ahead of the bottom line during a crisis tend to weather storms better. Those who view their role as serving employees, by providing tangible and emotional support, create greater engagement and help employees bring more of themselves to work. Communicating confidence in the future of the business and their confidence in the team’s ability to contribute to the success can help to drive increased productivity levels and it can be a strong motivator.

Finding the right balance of communication will ensure that you are not over-communicating, but still not keeping your team in the dark. Take advantage of video communication channels, whether it’s a live update or a pre-recorded message. Leaders can communicate on a more authentic level if they can be seen, and it is even more impactful in the new working-from-home environment with limited social interaction.

If possible, find the time to have the senior team to connect with people a few levels below to see how they are and ask about the challenges they are facing. Show that you care and don’t be afraid to show emotion. Try to respond to what they need, even if it’s not directly connected to their work.

Following a 70 percent drop in revenue, Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott delivered a video message to their employees, despite his recent chemotherapy treatment. In the humble video he announced that he and the chairman will forgo their salaries this year and the executive team’s salaries will be halved. The CEO got emotional as he talked about supporting his employees around the world and the message resonated with other CEOs who followed his example.

Establishing a sense of purpose

Now more than ever, people need a sense of purpose. With the shift to a full-time work-from-home environment and significant business change, many will be unclear on what their job is and how they can contribute to help the business to navigate through the crisis. Given the speed of the change we are experiencing; the answers today might not be the same as they were a few weeks ago.

Discuss with your team if any of the key elements of their work have or will change and help them navigate through their workload by asking what they need from you to be effective. By having these conversations, you can provide clarity needed to personalise the work’s purpose and show that you listen, connecting them to the business’ vision.

Research by The State University of New York demonstrates the value of questioning employees about their job tasks and then asking, “Why does it matter?” four times after each response as this exercise can connect a person’s daily activities to a higher-level goal. A decision making analysis at NASA during the 60s has showed that similar steps helped employees see a stronger connection between their work and NASA’s high aspirations - going from ‘I’m building electrical circuits’ to ‘I’m putting a man on the moon’. The analysis also found that this sense of purposes boosted employee collaboration and collective enthusiasm.

During these uncertain times, leaders need to stand in their people’s shoes and face challenges together. Authentic and open-hearted leadership will not only help us navigate through the crisis but bring long term benefits to the business. At Acumen we have over 21 years of experience in designing and delivering leadership development programmes that give leaders at all levels the practical tools to help solve real life challenges. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at

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