Now seems like a good time to step back and assess what we have learned and what has been reinforced about effective leadership. The past year has presented challenges that were never imagined. Some leaders excelled while others floundered. For the most part, the success and failure of leaders did not occur by chance.
For some leaders, personality helped them to survive but personality alone was not a formula for success. Other leaders attempted to rely on their technical skills, yet the situation demanded more than tools and techniques. Some leaders tried to “fake it,” acting as though they knew what to do while hoping that others would “pick up the slack,” only to be unmasked at some of the most crucial times.
Meanwhile, leaders who provided the guidance, support, and direction that led to success within their organizations over the past year typically relied on three key leadership elements. We might think of these elements as the legs of a three-legged stool. These “legs” provided the balance, stability, and confidence necessary to navigate new challenges and experiences without losing focus or touch with those who depended on their leadership. The legs maintained strong relationships and instilled confidence while leaders addressed serious and often controversial issues. Let’s explore this three-legged stool and how leaders can utilize it to generate success regardless of the conditions, challenges, and complexity they face.
The first leg is empathy. Leaders who succeed during turbulent, uncertain, and unpredictable times are committed to listening. These leaders know that the insights, experiences, and perceptions of those around them are crucial to understanding reality and what people perceive to be reality. They reflect on what they hear and often test their understanding to ensure clarity and accuracy. These leaders demonstrate caring through their understanding of and concern for the feelings and experiences shared with them. In the end, these leaders seek to see through the eyes of others.
The second leg is vulnerability. These leaders do not claim or act as though they have all the answers to every question and dilemma. They do not deny their experience and expertise. They also do not hide behind their position, past successes, or reputation. They are open and willing to consider advice without feeling threatened or offended. These leaders seek honest, even critical feedback to guide their growth. They readily admit to mistakes without excuses, and they choose to focus on learning and improvement over denial and defensiveness. These leaders want others to contribute meaningfully. In the end, their vulnerability also leads others to step up and step in when they need help and support.
The third stabilizing leg is strength. This strength is not to be confused with the power that comes from position or expertise. While these aspects can contribute to the strength of influence these leaders demonstrate, their strength grows out of words and actions that are consistently aligned with important values. They tap a sense of purpose to guide priorities and develop strategies. These leaders are willing to make tough decisions, even when they may be unpopular in the moment. They are willing to take smart risks to move the organization forward and make necessary changes. Further, these leaders remain focused and persistent enough to see initiatives through, yet they are flexible enough to let go of what has demonstrated that it will not succeed.
Certainly, leaders need knowledge and skills to be successful. They need strategies and tactics to address problems and advance important initiatives. Yet, none of these factors will lead to success, especially during turbulent times, without the three-legged support of empathy, vulnerability, and strength.