In Business, Times of Uncertainty Call for Leaders, Not Managers—Which One Are You?

By Stuart Hayes

No doubt about it, there is a humanitarian disaster unfolding of a magnitude not seen for generations. It is brutal. It is personal. It is heartbreaking.

There is also associated economic disruption, and this is causing hardship in other ways. Businesses are impacted, people are displaced, and money is tight. It is a crisis in every sense.

Throughout this period, you as a leader are most likely frantic. Your focus is being pulled across a range of subjects and threats, both real and potential. Is your business eligible for government support? How can you optimize this? Are you facing terminal cash flow problems? And, all the while, you are also adjusting to a new paradigm in which all of your people are working from home.

But what about you? What about your business? Your team? Your future? Are you positioned to emerge stronger?

Leaders may succeed during the COVID-19 crisis, but managers will fail

Above everything else that defines a crisis (and COVID-19 is no different), uncertainty is the single, consistent dynamic that always exists, and it demands you operate differently and learn to adapt. This is where leaders step in.

Harvard professor John Kotter defines leaders as those who move and guide us through change or toward somewhere new. This is in contrast to managers, who use their authority, processes, and controls to ensure we always do things consistently. Opposing, yet complementary forces.

But what happens when the paradigm shifts, like it has now? What if the processes and controls no longer work? What happens when change is happening so fast, business just can’t keep up?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”—Charles Darwin

Leaders who embrace change as their COVID “modus operandi” will thrive. At the best of times, leaders have neither the luxury of time to pause and redevelop strategy, nor the luxury of moving forward in haste and risk moving in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, this dilemma is magnified during a crisis, and then magnified even further for smaller businesses that are less resilient in the first place.

So how will successful businesses operate during this crisis? How will they emerge stronger than anyone else? The secret is change itself.

Will you emerge from COVID-19 with more or fewer clients?

Once upon a time, business leaders adopted the “command and control” model perfected by the military and government. Many of you may remember this model from the early stages of your career. I certainly do.

Within the command and control model, the ultimate leader or leadership group forms an alpha pack and decides everything. The problem is this style of leadership doesn’t resonate with people a whole lot these days, and in a crisis like COVID-19, it is completely and utterly misplaced.

In short, people want more from life than to be micromanaged, and many actually resist being told what to do. What this means is that ultimately the command and control model impinges team buy-in, loyalty, and engagement, and restricts your team’s ability to evolve fast enough to keep up with well-led rivals, let alone lead markets.

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Consider how various governments have responded differently to COVID-19. What level of trust was gained by leaders who transparently shared data early, with all its imperfections, versus those who kept it hidden? And then think about how this impacted the respective leaders’ ability to control the narrative and shift objectives as COVID-19 itself required?

It’s a tricky balance, of course, ensuring direction rather than giving direction. A point illustrated even in New Zealand, the media’s darling of crisis response, where the country’s Health Ministry boss, Ashley Bloomfield, observed how frontline teams who embraced the autonomy he provided them were significantly more effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 than those who sought direction and even complained there should be higher levels of control.

The bottom line is that in a crisis like COVID-19, if you are doing anything but organizing yourself in these ways, you had better change. And fast.

The most important task you can do right now

Do you already lead in this way? Are you already facilitating change and growth in your practice continuously? If you were a river boat captain who suddenly found the river had ended, and that you had sailed into the open sea for the first time, would you cut the bow line and move with the current, empowering your crew and embarking on an adventure into the unknown … or would you desperately try to find the river once again?

If you’re not sure, here’s a four-question survey to help you plan an effective course for strategy:

1. Would you be prepared to articulate adjusted three-month objectives for your team, every three months? During COVID-19, and particularly with a remote team, you can no longer assume your people actually understand your most important priorities and are aligning towards them.

2. Can you get comfortable with a high level of transparency? Transparency leads to trust, and trust is not only the cornerstone of effective leadership, but an imperative in a modern “real-time adjusting” business.

3. Are you okay empowering your people to achieve outcomes their way? If you say you are unsure, chances are you are not okay with this, but you need to be. You must be comfortable with actually allowing your team to achieve outcomes their way and empower them to remove whatever gets in their way.

4. Are you open to what might result if things start happening differently? Again, if you are dismissing this question too quickly, beware. I know it can be hard, but if you can’t allow things to flow unchecked, or if you are ever known to utter, “I told you so,” chances are your desire for control and to be “the expert in the room” will kill the golden goose before it lays its first egg.

RELATED: Leading Your Business From Home: 5 Way to Effectively Manage Your Team Remotely

About the Author

Post by: Stuart Hayes

Between 1998 and 2012, Stuart Hayes was parachuted to rescue ailing businesses in Asia, Australia, and the UK, while working as a change CEO specialist with multinational service organizations including Deloitte, KPMG, and Andersen. In 2013 Stuart stepped away from the CEO world and now guides teams and leaders to achieve extraordinary outcomes, irrespective of circumstances through his leadership consultancy, Stuart Hayes Leadership.

Company: Stuart Hayes Leadership
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