Over the past year, leaders across industries and around the world have been called on to wear many hats. But advice to them during this same period—and there has been no shortage of it—has been contradictory. For example, as early as mid-March when many U.S. cities were facing their first lockdown, the Harvard Business Review urged leaders to slow down. Less than one month later, HBR ran an article urging leads to be decisive and act with urgency.
Additionally, some experts have urged leaders to become more compassionate while others suggested a combination of empathy, transparency, and aspiration was necessary to thrive. Still others have observed that pandemic leadership is best supported by increased agility.
Given all the advice out there, leaders are taking on more roles than ever before: decision-maker, collaborator, confidante, inspirational role model, grief counselor, etc.
A few leaders have taken the growing demand to wear multiple hats simultaneously to headline-worthy extremes. In early March, the New York Times published a feature article on Colonel Mark Anarumo. As the President of Norwich University, a military college in Vermont, he was so worried about the mental health of students living and studying in quarantine, he moved into a campus dorm to express his support.
Getting in the trenches to lead can be effective. Anarumo found that spending just five days under lockdown in a campus dorm helped him better respond to his students’ plight. His students were in turn touched by his extraordinary act of empathy. If they had any doubt, they now trusted that he understood them and was even willing to walk in their shoes.
Over the course of the pandemic, many other business and political leaders have also made headlines as they have publicly donned different hats and roles.
When the pandemic hit, Mike McTaggart, the CEO of Quest Foods, which provides food to K-12 institutions and other venues, furloughed over 800 employees. In addition to foregoing his own salary, McTaggart became the founder of four food pantries to help support furloughed employees and their families. He also became a political lobbyist, working with local senators to help pass the Paycheck Protection Act.
New Zealand’s President Jacinda Ardern has also been widely praised for successfully wearing different hats during the pandemic—in her case, parent and national leader. This was first evident when she got rave reviews for a press conference she broadcast from her own home just after putting her toddler to bed.
Yet wearing too many hats as a leader can lead to conflicts. A leader may want to be a shoulder to cry on, but this can be difficult when one is also expected to oversee budget cuts, which can directly impact team members. Worse yet, when roles conflict, for example, when compliance with one role compromises the ability to engage in another, stress and risk of burnout often increase.
As we move out of the pandemic, leaders will likely be expected to continue straddling multiple roles. Doing this in a way that supports one’s organization and oneself will require heightened self-awareness.
To begin, take stock of how many hats you are already wearing. Notice which roles are inside your comfort zone and which ones feel like a stretch. Know that stretch roles require more preparation, energy, and attention and that taking on too many stretch roles simultaneously can put you at risk of burnout.
If you’re already wearing multiple hats, add new ones intentionally. Authentic displays of vulnerability can be a powerful way to connect with one’s team members. But if your ability to show up wearing this hat compromises your ability to lead on other levels, it may be time to scale back.
I also recommend that you tune inward before engaging outward. Start with a personal audit of your own energy banks. Calibrate as needed. As always, remember that you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can safely help others.
As a business psychologist who works with leaders across industries, I appreciate the ethical impulse to do it all. As someone who has witnessed the consequences of leaders juggling multiple and conflicting roles, I also appreciate the need for balance.
Ultimately, the best leaders are those who can step into different roles without compromising their core mandates or their own health and wellness.
Camille Preston, PhD, PPC is a leading business psychologist and the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership, an executive leadership firm that works with leaders, teams, and organizations to align and optimize human capital to drive scalable and sustainable results. She has helped hundreds of leaders and teams navigate the challenges of today’s disrupted workplace. She also partners with Blackhorn Ventures and serves as part-time faculty at The Center for Creative Leadership.