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Leadership Under Stress: Answering The Big Questions

There are proven strategies and techniques for improving the performance of leaders in your organization and guiding your team to success, even in trying times like these.

Editor’s Note: On a recent webinar hosted by Chief Executive Group, AlixPartners’ Ted Bililies answered questions from the audience about leading organizations through the Covid crisis—or any crisis, for that matter.

In times of stress, “leaders often unconsciously respond with behaviors that act counterintuitively to the necessary actions that need to be taken,” says Bililies, an internationally-recognized expert on leadership and organization development. But there are proven strategies and techniques for improving your performance and guiding your team to success, even in trying times like these.

Here are highlights, including answers to a few questions that we didn’t have time for during the session:

Making Leaders Better 

Question: Suggestions on strategies for members of a leadership team who find themselves in the charge of an ultimate leader who does not personify/embrace the best of adaptive leadership?

Ted Bililies: Great question and extremely pertinent to the current conditions we all find ourselves in. During times of disruptive change like these, all sorts of feelings are heightened — loss of control, personal efficacy, fear of failure. In response, leaders often unconsciously respond with behaviors that act counterintuitively to the necessary actions that need to be taken.

One thing to first examine is your firm’s culture. Do you have the organizational comfort level to have the appropriate distribution of decision rights to those lower in the organization who might be better equipped to solve problems and direct resources? If so, then that can often really help the higher management team and the “ultimate leader” to better cope with those larger strategic decisions that need to be made.

The next area to examine is the leader—perhaps he or she is that bottleneck to change. How open to feedback is the leader, who do they trust, who will they listen to? Every individual has what can be called an ‘operating narrative,’ the “track” playing at an unconscious level that might drive non-adaptive behaviors. To dig into that operating narrative and re-jigger the triggers that might drive non-adaptive behaviors, that individual leader might have to look to outside experts for assessment, coaching, and change support. For executives to succeed in leading organizational transformations, it often first necessitates personal transformations.

Lastly, a favorite method of mine that might also help management teams coping with change-resistant leadership is holding a serious conversation around your historical strategic planning performance. Examine your strategy planning: does every annual plan look something like the fabled “hockey stick” but more ultimately resembles a mediocre to moderate bump? Adaptive leadership teams are those who can break the norms of what generally happens in the strategy room—everyone does the ritual dance of the strategy process to get to the real item of importance, the annual operating plan where budgets are decided. This hand wave of strategic planning isn’t always due to lack of data, financial forecasting, or expertise—it’s often due to groupthink that hobbles real contrarian input and allows smart people to rinse, wash, and repeat the same plan over and over again.

Replacing Leaders In A Crisis

We see too many leaders not acting or not able to act in the best interest of the group etc. Where is the tipping point for team members and what is the best way to tackle this in a crisis situation without making the crisis even bigger (leadership gap)?

So, I would gently push back on this idea that the potential sidelining or removal of leaders that are not acting or able to act in the best interest of the group might “compound the crisis”. If these individuals are objectively not operating in the best interest of the larger organization or management team—then you already have a leadership gap that likely already existed before these crisis conditions set in. Crises reveal gaps in alignment or talent that are frequently not seen—or fully appreciated—before the crisis occurs.

Real performance is shown when crisis hits, much like how people really show their true character and capabilities when put under stressful conditions. This crisis, as terrible as it has been for so many, has put into full display the hard decisions that have not been made in times of plenty.

It’s generally accepted that for an organization to see a major change initiative through to success, it takes the involvement and support of the CEO, board members, and other senior managers to craft the “guiding coalition” (as termed by John Kotter) that can overcome individual resistance to change, because of course not everyone will be on board at first. This guiding coalition is the flywheel that can perpetuate support for the change initiative, gradually pushing its vision towards a tipping point in which most leaders and members of the organization have bought in and adapted their behaviors to be conducive towards change success and sustainment.

Be A Blog, Not a Book

When it comes to crisis, isn’t it important to be accessible and authoritative, as crisis is a time of chaos and it is important for a single person to get things in order?

Accessibility is key to leaders during a period of crisis, however, ‘authoritative’ I would change to “decisive.” Authoritative connotes expertise that might not actually exist for that particular leader and sets up an unrealistic expectation for them. Decisive leaders will still admit uncertainty around a multivariate scenario confronting them but will take rapid action based upon the best available data and inputs from team members.

I have this notion that leadership amid crisis should be geared to the circumstances. Leaders might think of themselves as “blogs” versus “books”. Blog posts are often corrected, easily edited, and adapt with a change in data—to quote J.M. Keynes “When the facts change, I change my mind—what do you do?” In the middle of a crisis situation, leaders of an organization will not have all of the information but will have to be as accessible as possible to inspire confidence among the workforce, so their communication approach should be that of a blog—admitting that they don’t have an answer for every situation, but that they will proactively make decisions for the organization as the data and environment dictates and keep its workforce updated as things change.

Compare this to a book—which are almost impossible to adapt or recall once published; it’s out there even if the facts change! Leaders should try to avoid the “one perfect communication,” like a book, because the situation will inevitably shift and there will be times when the leader will simply have to admit, “Hey, we don’t have all of the facts right now, but we are working to get a clearer picture and while we do, we are pursuing X, Y, and Z actions.”

As for your secondary question around a single person getting things in order—it is of course necessary for the “person-in-charge” to show that they are in command, the old Army maxim says, “When in charge, take charge.” But no single person can be expected to get all the necessary things in order, it takes a diverse team of skills, experience, and behaviors to support and complement the leader (and a willingness on the leader’s part to consider and act on their input).

Model Stockdale 

One of the points is to keep the end goal in sight. How would you suggest we handle leading in this crisis which has no clear endpoint or timeline?

Great question—thanks for asking it. I would first point you back to the example I shared about the Stockdale Paradox.

Stockdale had no clue when he might (if ever) be released from his POW camp, there was no sign outside of his cell that said “X Number of Days Until Release”; but that lack of an endpoint didn’t stop his unwavering belief that he would make it through the other side of his torturous captivity. Of course, he also tempered that unconquerable belief with the brutal reality of his circumstances.

In situations like these with no defined endpoint or timeline, I would suggest that leaders model Admiral Stockdale’s approach: acknowledge the tremendous hardships that face the organization while expressing absolute confidence that brighter days are ahead and that “this too shall pass”.

Upping EQ?

Can you improve your own EQ? Or that of your senior leaders?

A fantastic question, generally yes to both!

It takes some self-awareness and humility to go through the process of improving one’s EQ; but as someone who has worked with dozens of leaders across multiple industries, I have certainly see many individuals improve their own EQ through careful diagnoses of behavioral drivers and eventual self-acknowledgment of areas for improvement.

Tools for Teams

Please clarify “Boost adoption of teamworking tools”.  Other than video conferencing, what are these?

Without mentioning specific products, I would have you consider how your organization has been confronting remote work and the dissemination of information beyond in-person meetings or videoconferences.

This can start at the highest levels: how is your leadership keeping in contact with employees stuck at home? We have seen organizations (including our own global firm ) leverage daily email newsletters, mobile application video messages from the CEO, and intranet flash reports to keep employees engaged on what the organization is pursuing in response to the current environment.

Additionally, we have seen organizations step up their remote learning and development efforts through tools like SmartSheets or Trello for simplified learning management, Microsoft Teams for sharing lesson plans and group communication, and Toggl for time tracking across multiple initiatives (Are people spending an inordinate amount of time on a particular module? Maybe we need to take a look at the content there).

Being Everywhere?

How do you recommend being available (in person) when we operate in multiple locations? 

Great question and one that confronts a lot of managers across many organizations.

The simple truth is that the concepts of availability and in-person management style have changed in the past decade or so and have only really been accelerated by the forcing function of social distancing.

Managers should not set realistic expectations of being available “in person” for their team especially for organizations that are geographically dispersed or have employees that prize their ability to work from home. Instead, managers should work to develop their digital dexterity and emotional intelligence to better connect through platforms like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, and phone conferencing—while also leveraging collaboration suites like Asana, Monday, and others to ensure that projects and tasks are staying on track.

Board Communications

Do you have any particular communications recommendations for board leadership as distinct from CEO/management?

Leadership from the Board can be very effective in times of crisis. It can reassure rank and file employees, reinforces the reality of a stable and secure organization, and provides another channel for employees and other stakeholders to look for guidance. The key element here is for the Board to coordinate closely with the CEO and his/her crisis management team to determine jointly what the best messaging would be.

The Board, for example, can reinforce the core values and purpose of an organization and can buttress the messaging of the CEO.  Through the broad experience of its members, the board can also cite other companies and other ideas it is adopting. Finally, the whole notion of financial stewardship—which is core to Board governance—is always a good reminder for many constituencies to hear.


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