It is one thing to keep employees focused and engaged when times are normal; try doing it during a global pandemic. Not only are people isolated—which cuts them off from the usual channels of stimulation and connection—but the uncertainty of the future takes a drastic toll on every employee. The current crisis calls for specific types of leadership, but not just one approach will work. Ironically, one style of leadership that has been under attack for years, is just the kind needed right now; Command and Control.
Also called Top Down Leadership; Command and Control was the predominant leadership style in place during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. The belief was that, if the approach worked in the military, it should work for business. Since there was little research to refute this belief, the military-is-good-for-business philosophy flourished. It was later discovered that, not only are there over a dozen styles of leadership that are effective in business, even the military doesn’t adhere only to the top-down management style (they routinely employ consensus and team-think when needed). The truth is the type of leadership that works best depends on what kind of team you are leading, as well as the situation the team is facing.
The situation that most calls for Command and Control is an emergency. When the ship is sinking, there is no time to call for a vote. But it isn’t just expediency that demands a top-down approach, it is the psychological state of the team. I recall a scene in a movie where a young naval officer is thrust into the captain’s chair in a submarine after most of the crew is killed. When a sailor continually presses him for a plan of action, the new captain snaps and says, “I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers!” An older, wiser skipper takes the young captain aside and says, “Don’t ever say ‘I don’t know’ to your crew again. Those three words will kill a crew deader than a depth charge. You are the captain. You have to know.”
This is not to say that leaders should be barking orders and ignoring input; it is a reminder that the type of leader that is needed right now is one that knows; a leader that is decisive. Going in the wrong direction might be risky, but it is much less risky than not picking a direction at all.
Another critical lesson also comes from the military. It involves Distributed Teams; people who work in separate geographic locations. Some companies deal with this challenge as a matter of course, but most are facing it now for the first time. The military has researched how a leader can best command troops that are located thousands of miles away, often in a different country. The one action taken by successful leaders of distributed teams was communication that was frequent and spontaneous. The longer an employee goes without contact with the leader, and fellow employees, the worse the results. Also, regularly scheduled meetings are not spontaneous; so, they provide less benefit. Check in on your staff—one-on-one if you can—but make it often and make it a surprise.
Finally, the first casualty of crisis is humor, and prolonged periods without the healing power of laughter are dangerous for humans. One critical condition that must exist for people to laugh is permission. Before people laugh, they look around them to first see if laughter is considered acceptable. That is why people are sixteen times more likely to laugh at something if they witness it as a group, rather than seeing it alone. Prolonged crises, like we are experiencing with COVID-19, can seem to make the very act of levity a crime. Now is the time, as a leader, for you to include humor in communication. Let people know that they are not being insensitive to the situation by releasing tension through laughter. In fact, one of the greatest benefits of laughter is the release of tension, which help mitigate dangerous toxins that are fostered by prolonged stress.
The best way to relieve your own sadness is to force yourself to help someone relieve theirs. This is the most important job of leading in a time of COVID.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.