Oakley, United Kingdom
Leadership in Lockdown
Easing off my knees, I finished another prayer to live – to see my baby girls grow up, hold my wife again, drink tea with my mum and dad, have a beer with my brother. Pushing through canvas tent flaps into a desert sunset, I primed myself to brief the brilliant women and men under my command. Unsure of what the coming hours would bring, I hoped to inject their souls with glue to hold them together under the strain of doubt. Uncertainty was our only constant in utterly disrupted times.
As a military commander in the Afghanistan campaign and the Gulf War – with just weeks at home between the two back-to-back deployments – uncertainty was a perpetual tormentor. Injury, illness, capture or death were real possibilities, even under camp lockdown. Uncertainty is insidious, gnawing confidence away to undermine your emotional foundations as fast as you can build them. For me, one of the best ways to cope with uncertainty – even to thrive – is to lead.
Leadership is more than just a title or role, it is a state of mind. Authentic leadership inspires discretionary effort – a golden gift people choose to give. It shrinks the gap between a person’s performance and what they’re capable of – their true potential. Even tiny acts of humanity can motivate people to go beyond what’s expected of them, drawing massive power from the choice they made to offer that little bit extra. You can’t buy discretionary effort – by definition, it can never be for sale.
Working with coaching clients as we headed into lockdown, most focused on three things – how to help their people with fear and uncertainty, how to keep teams together when they’re not together and how to sustain spirits. Of course, it’s exactly then – when it’s hardest – that leadership is most valuable. As leaders, this is when we need to ‘touch’ people… without touching them.
In desert sands and cold mountains, on rainy exercise plains and in international business offices, I’ve repeatedly learned that leadership is about making decisions and generating momentum. Being tolerant of those who are crippled by uncertainty, admitting that we too are unsure, can unleash discretionary effort’s transformational power.
I believe that six things can build it.
Your set of values define your character. Whilst they may overlap with others, they’re rarely identical. Elvis Presley said that our values were like fingerprints – left on everything we touched. The strength in those values can ease uncertainty aside, and we owe it to ourselves to remain human, dignified and resilient under isolation.
The sense of ownership that we build in our teams, families and communities. Individual and group accountability weaves strong silver threads around the activities we undertake. Responsibility builds infectious assurance as others see us owning tasks like organising group calls, ‘virtual coffee’ webinars or a weekly ‘happy hour’ cyber-chat for a ‘drink’ together.
Inquisitiveness means always checking for better ways to do things, inviting questions and asking whether we need ‘that process’ at all. Creating an atmosphere of constructive debate and accepting occasional mistakes (in the spirit of ‘trying new stuff’) helps people trust that their inputs are essential to tackle common goals.
Leaders need to set sufficient challenge to generate momentum without overwhelming people. In uncertain times, even the perception of progress fosters cohesion. Sebastian Junger’s excellent book Tribe includes multiple stories of human strength under adversity and great challenge – but coping with lockdown may be as simple as teaching children to cook five staple dishes, help a relative learn to use Skype or build some awesome core strength with that hitherto unopened yoga DVD.
As leaders we craft an environment through the language used, the behaviours observed and the mindset adopted. Humans have a negativity instinct – amplified by the media – but leaders can build a ‘rising tide that lifts all ships’ and nurtures group energy through facts, perspective and positivity. Under lockdown one night on military operations, we made a ‘bingo’ game out of a hundred numbered plastic bottle-tops and played for hours.
The final component that builds discretionary effort is storytelling. Since cave-dwelling days, we’ve relied on them to build emotional and neural connections, up to five times more effectively than through statistics. Stories are how we shape our shared ‘why’ – a powerful antidote to uncertainty – and a top challenge is to tell them in under two minutes with prizes for the most inspirational.
These six things spell out VOICES – the voices of the people I’ve followed and the ones I’ve led. They have helped me to believe absolutely in the power of discretionary effort. Whilst humans go to incredible lengths for each other, leadership can nudge them even further. Amidst uncertainty, isolation, deprivation and the loss of freedom, leadership is one of the few things we can control and pay forward.
For me, lockdown means that I can’t see or hold my brother’s new baby – my first niece and long-awaited (for a few reasons). We’re sad that she may be three months old or more by the time we get to be with them properly. Perhaps we can write her a note for the future about the values we care about, the impact of owning a task, the power of questions, the goals we hope she challenges herself with and the environment we want her to live in… if we can make it a cracking story, she might even read it one day. The discretionary effort she may be inspired to give will never have a price tag, but it will leave us all richer anyway.
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