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How to lead when you’re scared too

A senior editor at Nomadic Learning says that now that the early adrenaline rush of quarantine—scrambling online classes or remote work, hosting emergency virtual town halls—is wearing off, the next challenge is endurance.

How to lead when you’re scared too
[Photo: Daria Shevtsova/Pexels]

There’s a moment in childhood, usually around age 12 or 13, where you realize (to your horror) that your parents actually have no idea what they’re doing. They, like you, are winging it.

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Watching the pandemic unfold is a little like watching that happen at a grand scale, in real time, to thousands of companies and governments around the world. Everyone is looking up at the CEOs, at the principals and directors, at the presidents and PMs, and thinking, “Uh-oh. They’re just as clueless as me.”

And it’s true. No matter how prepared some people may have been, nobody has ever done this particular thing before. For the past few months, everyone in power has been fumbling, trying to come up with a plan, trying to reassure the people around them, and trying to figure out what happens next.

If you are a leader—of a country, of an organization, of a team, of a household—this probably all sounds sweaty and nausea-inducing and familiar. Everyone has been reacting from moment to moment, with varying levels of success.

Now, the world is at a turning point. The early adrenaline rush—juggling online classes or remote work, hosting emergency virtual town halls—is wearing off. The next challenge is endurance. As organizations collectively slide into the fatigue and boredom of long-haul isolation, it falls to leaders to maintain momentum, even as inertia and uncertainty threaten to drag everyone down.

That is a nerve-racking test, especially because leaders feel uncertain, frightened, exhausted, and alone too. But as uncomfortable as those feelings are, they actually serve as a guide for how to lead right now.

When you feel uncertain, you want a plan. When you feel frightened, you want kindness. When you are exhausted, you want recognition and motivation. When you are alone, you want companionship and camaraderie.

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Those feelings and anxieties are universal right now. For leaders, that’s good news. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for leading through this crisis, this is a shared experience, and that provides a fairly clear-cut rubric for offering support to the people around you:

Come up with a plan

Not a grand plan. Just a plan to get through tomorrow, and the next day. Pick one reasonable goal to accomplish, and then assign everyone you lead a task that will contribute toward it. Land one new client, finish one project, clean one room in the house—everyone (including you) will feel better with a single, simple objective. When one task is complete or one goal accomplished, find another.

Lead with compassion

Some team cultures are competitive or cutthroat. Now is a time to put all of that aside. Right now, everyone needs to take care of one another. By the time this is over, many will have gotten sick, many will have lost loved ones. Getting through the day is hard. People will need time off, understanding, breathing room, a shoulder to cry on, and more. You can’t provide it all, but choosing to be kind first will provide comfort to many, and a model for how to behave to many more.

Celebrate your people

Right now, every accomplishment, no matter how small, is worth cheering. Routines are in shambles, our lives have come to a halt, and it is becoming difficult to distinguish one day from the next. To punctuate that landscape and give people motivation, leaders need to find reasons to celebrate and good news to promote. It also helps to recognize all the daily, tiny actions and choices that keep the group moving.

Prioritize relationships

Isolation takes a toll. This is a great time for team-building; for finding things that unite your people and tie the whole group together. Building camaraderie remotely might not be as simple as herding everyone into the bar down the street for happy hour, but activities that focus on the personal—family meet-and-greets, virtual birthday celebrations, summer-camp-style icebreakers—can provide enormous benefits and remind everyone that their communities and friendships still exist.

None of this will be easy.

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Over the next 3, or 6, or 18 months, there will be many challenges. The ups and downs of the stock market will prove distracting, the contracting economy will create stress, and people will experience immense tragedy. Good leadership won’t fix any of that, but it can help provide direction through the struggles ahead. (And the process of working through it all might help anchor the leaders too.)

The people in charge are always expected to be somehow above or ahead of the problems that others face. Right now, paradoxically, the only way to do that is to slow down and look inward. In this moment, leadership is less about the qualities that set figures of authority apart and more about the fundamental ways in which we are all alike.


Becca Endicott is a senior editor at Nomadic Learning.

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