Strengths in a Crisis
One of the age old arguments in the study of leadership is whether a particular situation brought forth the leadership qualities necessary for a great person to lead, or whether the leader simply was recognized for what he or she already was before the event. Put another way, was Lincoln a great leader because of the American Civil War or would he have been acknowledged as so absent the war? Was the leader shaped by the moment or did they, by the strength of their skills, use the moment?
While we can debate the great leader theories, what seems clear is that certain leader skills and strengths appear to be what particular crisis events, and people in them, needed at the time. For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, Rudy Giuliani became America’s Mayor for his strengths of showing up, taking charge, and offering hope. It was FDR’s resilience, reassuring messages, and persuasive strength that carried Americans through the Great Depression and WWII.
Former four star Army General Stanley McChrystal, while recently discussing leadership on a CBS program, offered this quote from a colleague at Yale: “People will forgive you for not being the leader you should be, but they won’t forgive you for not being the leader you claim to be.” The point, of course is to be authentic. Knowing your strengths is a critical first step in leading others. Self-awareness matters. Understanding what followers need in moments of crisis is a critical step as well. If what you do well and what people need are the same sweet spot, then you will succeed. For example, it may be that a leader’s command strength and maybe even pushiness don’t work so well where a consensus is being sought, but are just the right spices in a crisis where immediate and direct action is needed.
So it’s no surprise that in today’s COVID-19 crisis, public health experts are standing alongside governors in reports to the public. Smart political leaders understand their strengths need to be complemented by other team members who offer other skills and knowledge, as in this case where medical expertise is so important. As a leader, you can do anything. You can’t do everything. It’s not necessary to be well rounded but your team should be. You may be the right person to outline the merits and importance of loans to small businesses, but somebody on your team needs have execution strengths to bring successful fruition to that vision.
Besides, nobody wants to be in a band where the leader gets all the solos. Creating a team that has complementary strengths, assigning their respective roles and delivering successfully IS leadership. Whether it’s a pandemic or some other crisis, leaders need to (1) know themselves (2) know what followers need in the situation, and 3) build a team that supports followers. Those are the first steps. Having a team with the necessary complementary strengths in a crisis won’t ensure success but it most certainly will increase the probability of it.
It’s been noted that failure is an orphan and success has many fathers and mothers. Better to have lots of parents.