Recently, as I was reading Harvard Business Review, I came across an article by Walt Rakowich, a former CEO. And, having written about the crises that leaders have been facing throughout 2020 (May Newsletter), Walt’s article really hit home. It is entitled “CEOs, Don’t Let Fear and Paranoia Sink Your Leadership” (Harvard Business Review, October 7, 2020).
Working with leaders for over 20 years, I have encountered them in every conceivable situation – tremendous growth, maintaining strong leadership, serious decline, financial hardships, etc. However, 2020 seems to have brought greater uncertainty than almost any year I can remember. Needless to say, this is due to the totally unexpected – and unknown – COVID-19.
But one thing that is certain about uncertainty – it brings on fear. As detailed in this HBR article, researchers and other “leadership experts” have been telling “CEOs to be humble.” That is, “the ideal leader respects and listens to colleagues, communicates honestly, adjusts opinions when confronted with new evidence, and makes decisions that strengthen the organization rather than his or her own position.”
It’s very easy to agree with that advice. However, think about leaders that are often recognized as being “the best.” Their stories regularly include situations where they were “tough,” “worked relentlessly,” and “made critical decisions on their own.” Doesn’t sound very humble and collaborative to me. That’s the problem – we say we want “servant leaders” (Greenleaf, R.K., 1977. Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness), but we very often recognize and reward CEOs who are independent and hard-driving. And, during times of uncertainty, this mismatch becomes even more pronounced.
So, why do leaders shift away from the desired “servant leadership,” with its collaborative and supportive style to a directive, “hard driving,” and more selfish style during uncertain times? Fear. That’s right – fear.
Specifically, the article detailed five common fears among top leaders. Worrying about “appearing to be 1) incompetent, 2) vulnerable, 3) foolish, 4) under-achieving, and 5) being attacked from their colleagues.” And “none of these fears involved the businesses or the organizations they led. Rather, the leaders were caught up in themselves, and their fears were limiting their effectiveness.” (Rakowich, 2020).
If uncertainty brings on fear, and fear leads to ineffective leadership, what are leaders to do during times of fear? Instead of shifting away from successful, service-oriented leadership, they need to focus more on it. But exactly how can they best make that shift, especially when they are likely to be quite fearful?
Based on years of research, E.A.S.I-Consult® has identified that there are four capabilities that distinguish “exceptional” leaders from all other leaders. We refer to these as the Four Pillars of Exceptional Leadership, and they include:
Pillar #1 – Strategic Agility
Pillar #2 – Engaging Leadership Across the Enterprise
Pillar #3 – Innovation and Driving Continuous Improvement
Pillar #4 – Developing Talent and Leading Through Others
Therefore, when times are most challenging, demonstrating these capabilities and leading in an “exceptional manner,” is most critical.
Over the years, my colleagues and I have assessed, coached, and developed thousands of leaders, including CEOs and other C-Suite executives. And I’ve found it quite interesting – those leaders who are most successful on a consistent basis regularly exhibit these Pillars – no matter the organization or industry. And, during the most uncertain and fear-provoking times, this allows them to create a sense of confidence and resolve to employees throughout their entire company, which then leads to successfully emerging from the crises as a stronger organization.
As a leader, trying to excel in the corporate hierarchy while keeping the focus off yourself – that is, being a “servant leader” — can seem counterintuitive. But focusing on the things that make a leader “exceptional” provides the roadmap and discipline that so many of our leaders need during these uncertain times. Remember, improving leadership performance is always needed – especially now.
About the Author
Joseph Gier, Ph.D. is Vice President – Consulting Services at E.A.S.I-Consult® and is a licensed Psychologist. E.A.S.I-Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized organizations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. Utilizing scientific approaches, E.A.S.I.-Consult® provides superior results to Business – Driven by Science. Our specialties include leadership and leadership potential assessment, online employment assessment, customized skills assessment, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. To learn more about E.A.S.I.-Consult®, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com, or call 800.922.EASI.