2020 has threatened to undo me. Prior to the pandemic, I was confident in my naturally empathetic leadership approach, managing 10 employees and 10 clients. But I also knew when to stand my ground.
Strong and soft.
I began repeating this mantra when the business impact of the Covid-19 crisis began to take shape. March is a blur of difficult conversations that felt deeply personal and urgently professional at the same time.
Strong and soft became—and remains—a nuanced style of leadership I’ve adopted. Overnight, we became 24/7 crisis counselors for a pandemic unlike anything we have witnessed in modern history, and this continues today as we find our roles in the social justice movement and ready ourselves for the election ahead.
I failed to lead by example.
During the height of quarantine, executives became buried in back-to-back Zoom calls. Strong leaders juggled this while never wanting to make a client or colleague feel like we didn’t have enough time to address their concerns. I approach my team just as I do my friends and family, checking in regularly on their physical and mental health. When I could not answer a personal question, I had no ego in seeking advice from HR or my manager. 2020 has demanded that leaders solve issues collaboratively.
Strong and soft.
Strong: Sharpened senses
Particularly in the client service arena, leaders must maintain razor-sharp awareness of expectations. As the pandemic took hold, it became more critical to analyze even the slightest shifts in a client’s tone or transparency about the impact of the virus on business. This hyper-vigilant style of crisis leadership became evident not just in our backyard, but across the globe. Harvard Business Review evaluated pandemic responses from leaders spanning the NBA to the government of New Zealand. The most successful leaders have some basic but notable commonalities that became strong nonnegotiables for me as well: acting with urgency, communicating with transparency, responding to missteps and staying constantly engaged.
I built my days around joining every client call. I made myself available day and night because our clients were juggling the same onslaught of pressure. I then relayed this in countless one-on-one conversations to clients to ensure our team could have a seat at the table. I learned to dissect every form of communication to determine if something bigger was brewing so we could then be a partner and friend.
The back-to-back pace with very little desk time to attack my own growing to-do list had me unglued. My biggest fear was that a dropped ball would have a domino effect on our division. I was trying to be the strong one for our entire team. I needed to bring everyone into the tough conversations and have them punch far above their weight class. I had to ask them to be stronger and more patient than they’d ever been asked to be before.
Soft: It’s OK to not be OK
In the thick of trying to protect every program dollar, I missed important cues about the team’s wellbeing. I failed to lead by example.
I partnered with the team to try new connections. Focus areas included a “secret Santa” gift exchange, more casual calls and half days on Fridays.
Placing just as much emphasis on emotional support became as important as leading from a place of strength. In leading with more softness, there is one attribute that I hope to never lose sight of in the future: It is the ability to fail openly, honestly and with grace.