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Unfiltered Leadership In Times Of Crisis

We want leaders who speak to us directly, who are willing to tell us how things are going—even when they are not going well.

All indications are that Covid-19 will be with us deep into 2021 and perhaps even longer. We can no longer hope that the worst is behind us and soon we will be able to go back to “the way it’s supposed to be.” The ongoing pandemic poses a once-in-a-generation challenge to CEOs and business leaders. It also presents an unprecedented opportunity to re-examine the role of leaders and what it means to be a leader in a time of crisis and beyond.

Based the results of a multiyear Culture & Technology Intersection study, which first launched in 2016, my co-author, Stephen Denny, and I were able to identify leadership qualities that provide a new, more affirmative and respectful way to lead—and that have the power to change the trajectory of a business and the evolution of any brand.

Let’s start with the insight that underpins everything we learned about effective leadership in today’s challenging environment: seeking control in an out-of-control world. All of us, whether employees or leaders, find ourselves in a world that feels out-of-control. This makes us feel vulnerable and defenseless, and the pandemic has only heightened our sense of vulnerability and helplessness.

Effective leaders understand this. They understand that employees want leaders who find every possible way to give employees a sense of control over their outcomes. They understand that employees want clarity and transparency. They understand that employees want to know why the company is doing what it is doing – it’s purpose for existing. And contrary to prevailing wisdom, employees don’t want leaders who believe they have all the answers. Rather, they want leaders who acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers.

Further, effective leaders exhibit qualities that draw their employees to them. They are personal and direct. They listen more than they talk and they are not afraid of making mistakes and showing their imperfections. They are vulnerable – like the rest of us – and vulnerability helps people connect.

When a crisis like the pandemic hits, we’d prefer to see the CEO on camera, without a well-produced script and backdrop, explaining what has happened in as genuine and personal a manner as possible. And as soon as possible.

On August 8, 2016, a fire and subsequent power outage took 30 Delta Airlines servers offline, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers in airports around the world. CEO Ed Bastian immediately went on camera via Twitter: “Hi, I’m Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines. I am speaking to you today from our operations and customer center where we’ve got Delta teams working around the clock to restore our systems capabilities….”

Bastian’s lead-from-the-front-on-video approach didn’t end with his 10:48 a.m. announcement, either. He once again appeared on video, this time in slightly more relaxed and less chaotic environment, the next day to explain what happened, what Delta was doing to compensate stranded passengers, and put the entire event into perspective. “I wanted to give you an update with respect to the recovery progress we’re making from yesterday’s system outage,” Bastian said.

The willingness of this CEO – in a position that we often assume is above reproach and who would never admit to anything less than total omnipotence – to step in front of a camera, with a harried operations center just over his shoulder literally attempting to solve a complex IT problem as the camera rolled, is a clear example of the kind of leadership customers, stakeholders and employees seek in times of crisis.

We want leaders who want to move toward an immediate, transparent, work-in-progress footing for brand communications. We want leaders who want to go faster, be less polished and be more human. We’re OK with leaders giving up some control — an uncomfortable amount of control, really — to show customers (and the outside world) what the company is doing, in real time. Ed Bastian may not have been as articulate as he might have been had he been reading from a script, and in speaking extemporaneously, he ran the risk of talking out of turn.

However, that was the point. We want leaders who talk to us directly, who are willing to tell us how things are going—even when they are not going well. We want our leaders to be more human, more vulnerable and more transparent.

Ed Bastian’s style of unfiltered leadership has not gone unnoticed. In 2018, Fortune magazine named him one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” an honor he shared with Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Bill and Melinda Gates.

In the time of Covid, when the need for community is more important than ever, unfiltered leadership helps people connect.


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