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The Strongest Leader has the Strongest Team

How to close the gap between you and your team to emerge stronger from crisis

By: General Stanley A. McChrystal and David Kidder

Every leader wants to believe that they are going to direct their organization to success and to greatness. They get up in the morning, look themselves in the mirror and think, “I am going to lead the way.” At work they see themselves as the person in control, the person with the answers to every pressing question. They thrive on being at the center of it all, making the big decisions, and feeling as though they are the chessmaster making the moves that will win the game. Most simply, leaders want to lead.

In good times, this may work fine - because the times are good. The tide is high, and everyone is busy hauling in nets full of fish. But as Warren Buffett once said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.” One day you wake up, and the good times have vanished. Today, the tide is out.

Right now, any crisis your business faces is magnified enormously by COVID-19 - either directly or indirectly, intensifying your challenges and steepening the learning curve. For many businesses, the pandemic and resulting economic collapse have created an ongoing catastrophe that threatens the health and welfare of the business and it’s employees from top to bottom.

When crisis arrives and the good times seem like distant memories, you realize that not only has the chessmaster mentality not carried you to victory as a leader, but worse, it has created a gap between you and your employees. That gap now prevents you and your team from moving forward to solve the crisis together. The gap becomes a crisis in and of itself, an internal crisis alongside the external one your organization faces. We can think of the Gap as a crisis within a crisis.

The Gap

The Gap is the product of the moment when you, as a leader, decide that you alone have the best answers to whatever problems your organization faces. The Gap grows between you and your team over time, and it gets filled with rumors, politics, skepticism, and uncertainty. When The Gap is large and unaddressed, employees feel powerless. They came to work for your organization to solve problems alongside you, and this problem-solving is often their most cherished skill. But without a chance to apply those skills, to endeavor to make a meaningful contribution to the company, your employees withdraw. As they do, you try to fill The Gap with your own solutions, and the result can lead to further toxicity and de-motivation. If the leader is planning to solve all of the problems, what is the incentive for the team to be there at all?

As a leader, you may be tempted to close The Gap with even more decisive solutions of your own. This is understandable. You don’t want to feel like a failure, and you think it’s your job to have all the answers. But this is a mistake — a potentially fatal one for the company. The only way to close The Gap is to do it with your team. That means speaking the truth to each of them, asking for their service, then committing to a new way of working together.There are four steps for closing The Gap and emerging stronger from a crisis as a team.

1. Speak truth with vulnerability

A leader’s job is to always communicate the truth. And in a crisis, the truth is that no one can be sure what is the smartest, quickest, or best way out. Everyone will have an intuitive understanding that the state of the world has changed-- we did not require CEOs to explain that COVID was a crisis, even as early as in mid-March -- but it is the CEO’s job uniquely to frame the nature of the crisis, and to explicitly call it something *we* must deal with *together.*

You may be confident you will find a way out, but you don’t know specifically what that way will be. Accepting this uncertainty and saying it aloud and often matters hugely. It takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable to admit you don’t have all of the answers to the crisis confronting you. Speaking truth about the crisis addresses The Gap, rather than pretending that it doesn’t exist. The vulnerability you show in speaking this truth is what then opens the door to asking your team to serve. Show that you need them to step up, and they will.

2. Ask for service

After speaking the unvarnished truth with vulnerability, the next step is to ask everyone on your team for service in resolving the crisis. When you ask your team for help, be direct, be specific, and be open-minded.

First, tell your team exactly what you know, and what you don’t. This is a crisis, and the information will be changing on a daily basis. It’s up to you to give your team all of the information you can, openly and plainly. Establishing exactly what you are asking them for and that you are open to their new ideas is key-- it will set the tone for their willingness to share new ideas with you, and establish that you will be updating them as new developments come up.

As the leader of your team, you also know the strengths of each individual, and what they contribute on a daily basis. Make targeted requests to your organization’s specialties and be clear about areas where they can have the largest impact. When they know where and when help is needed, they'll come through, often in new and unexpected ways.

And remember, no one on your team will have the perfect answer to a problem as complex as a full-scale crisis. But that does not mean that, together, a number of ideas cannot act as building blocks to a solution, or even a logical next step. So, even when an idea seems out-of-the-box or seems peculiar to you, be sure to listen intently, ask questions, and give it a fair chance. You asked your team for help-- the only way they’ll continue to offer their support is if you approach them with an open mind.

This is where The Gap gets closed.

3. Commit to a new way

After you’ve led with truth and asked for service, you need a process to fill that opening you’ve created. And you need to commit to that process for good. This is not a one-and-done exercise, this becomes a new, better way of working - a way to use crisis to transform your team and your leadership permanently.

The new process involves:

● Telling the truth as a way of working: Continue to speak the truth, not have all the answers, and show vulnerability when necessary, as opposed to having your defensive armor on. When things change, so should your view of your organization’s options, status, and mission.

● Team involvement in decision making as a way of working: Create task forces and small group activities to foster safe environments where employees feel comfortable speaking their perspectives.

● Reprogramming the organization’s risk tolerance: A culture and process of truth-telling and team involvement requires being able to stare down uncertainties together and be comfortable with them, rather than needing the comfort of a leader who continually reassures everyone with a message of “don’t worry, I got this.” Truth-telling is a two-way street, and your organization needs to become confident that while they may not know the answer to every question, they can over time get those answers and prevail.

4. Expect teammates to be on board to help the team succeed

Now that you have come clean, asked for help, and put a process in place for achieving results as a team, you can work to eliminate all space for the behaviors that undermine team performance.

This commitment is critical in all moments, but particularly in moments of crisis. At this moment, the notion of “do vs say” is of the utmost importance. Leaders cannot just speak about how “we’re all in this together,” they must act proactively to reframe their team as a united front and establish a culture of cross-functionality, deep transparency, and public accountability.

The question is not do you as a leader want to have all of the answers. In today’s complex world, no one person has all of the answers. The question is, will you rely on your own narrow capabilities to solve complex problems, or will you tap into the full range of your team’s capabilities to do so? The choice should be obvious if you want to overcome this, and any crisis, and thrive in the longer-term. Your team will thank you too - and be more productive and engaged as you find paths to new growth together.

Warning: Don’t confuse leading differently with leading less. This is actually harder.

There can be a temptation to believe that being vulnerable, inclusive, empathetic and “touchy-feelie” is a way to lead while being less engaged, less accountable, or less consumed by your role. It won’t do that.

If you approach this faithfully, it is a bit like fly-fishing – you aren’t aggressively heaving a spear at your prey, but it demands full concentration (and a bit of trial and error to master). But it will produce more from the full team, and surprisingly, you find more in yourself.



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