In my early leadership years I worried that vulnerability would hurt business. The perception I had back then was that effective leaders were stoic – enduring pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining. What made the idea all the more ingrained was the harshness with which women in leadership positions, particularly black women or women of African origin, are judged in the business world. Visible vulnerability of any kind can be construed as weakness, incompetence, or an inability to lead.
That all changed in 2016 when four loved ones passed away in a space of two months, just after I recovered from a health challenge. At the time I held a part-time contracting role within an investment bank in London whilst simultaneously growing The Radical Leap Company. At the bank, the work environment could become really high-pressure very quickly depending on what was going on in the industry or the markets. At such times it was not uncommon to hear muffled sobs in the ladies’ room every now and then because no one wants to be seen crying when colleagues are hard at work.
Despite how strong I thought I was, the compounded grief laid me out both psychologically and physically. My body shutting down was the internal recovery process forcing me to stop and take time-out. In that time-out season I learnt many valuable lessons about self, life and business. One of the lessons that has stood out to date – which I’m very passionate about and speak about often – is the humanity of leadership. As I went through my grief process, which I later learnt was trauma from the culmination of the various experiences in that year, some close friends and business associates were also experiencing their own life battles; bereavement to divorce, depression, financial difficulty and others. Despite the personal challenges, we could talk to each other and share encouraging words and laughter amidst the tears because, in those moments, we were all experiencing our humanness without judgement or inhibition, something every leader goes through at different points in life.
Because the consultancy was still growing and I was implementing sustainable systems I could delegate, I needed to get back to business sooner than I was ready. On occasion I was required to attend board meetings and was worried about not being able to sit through them without a wave of grief coming on without warning. I developed a healthy respect for how humans are wired because in times of crisis the body cannot dictate to the soul what it should do. Where meetings were unavoidable, I would give a disclaimer and excuse myself to permit the waves to pass because trying to stop them would be psychologically detrimental later.
From that experience I made a decision to humanise leadership by giving myself permission to weather the storms or life without hiding vulnerability in safe circles where it’s safe to be open. By giving myself that permission, it inadvertently created a culture within our company where clients feel free to be vulnerable about life and business challenges knowing they will be supported. Somehow, vulnerability created rapport and connections that have opened up new opportunities to connect and build new relationships with professionals in different parts of the world – because before we are leaders, we are human and we now live in a world where the value of connectedness and empathy cannot be underestimated.
COVID-19 and Leadership
Needless to say, being a leader is not for the faint of heart, especially in times of crisis. It requires great self-awareness, business acumen, relationship building skills, clarity of vision and the ability to inspire others to work together towards a common goal. Great leaders inspire higher performance, productivity and business growth. There’s often an assumption that leaders are confident individuals who know exactly what they are doing and have no problem making tough decisions. However, the truth is that sometimes leaders experience internal struggles they may not openly share with those around them because the expectations placed upon them are quite high. While some leaders are able to overcome these internal struggles to go on and attain the success they seek in their careers, others are held back.
The year that was 2020 brought us all face-to-face with not only what is going on around the world but who we really are as leaders in the face of crisis. Though many leaders have weathered the global pandemic stoically, we cannot deny that the crisis has taken a major toll on emotions, businesses, finances, relationships, and even lives. Though some business leaders fared better than others, we have to be ready for the aftermath of these experiences within our individual organisations, whether you lead one person or a team of hundreds or thousands.
What we witnessed in the year that changed everything and everyone was the amplification of what was great and what was not, what we need to do more off and what we need to stop doing, what is valuable and what we could do without. It made some leaders step and and other step down. But what we cannot not deny is that all that was going on around us held a mirror to what was going on inside us.
Pre-COVID19, in the often tough worlds of corporate work and business, vulnerability may have been frowned upon and judged harshly. But now more than ever, leaders have been forced to see that there are no foolproof systems and processes that simplify the complexities of life. We can build businesses, gadget and systems but they are completely useless without the human element.
As many parts of the world get back – or prepare to get back – into the flow of business, we may find that every now and again leaders or their teams may need to time-out in order to remain functional and productive. We are not going back to business-as-usual. We must make room for the unusual nature of the current business world. At our company, we are holding a safe space for our team, clients and partners as some of them go through the toughest seasons of their lives.
There is a looming global mental health crisis that we cannot ignore in our various spheres of influence. It would be prudent to prioritise wellness personally and in our teams and do what it takes to make sure we, as leaders, foster environments and cultures that permit vulnerability whilst providing the necessary support to bounce-back or ensure the team or business are not adversely affected.
3Rs for Leading in a Crisis
Should there ever be a need to time-out, permit yourself or your team to go through the 3R process – something we created for internal use in our company but we believe can be applied anywhere:
Time-out and step into a safe place to think or reflect. Whatever the challenge may be, the safe place needs to be somewhere you are free to be yourself and to think without external pressure. It could be an hour in your private office, prayer room or meeting room where you will not be interrupted. It could also be a walk in the park, a weekend away or even a 6-month sabbatical. You choose. It’s an opportunity to gather your thoughts and decide how you want to experience your life or your business going forward. A retreat is an opportunity to decompress, build resilience, and expand the mental fortitude it takes to keep going when the going gets tough.
Different experiences or circumstances will have a different impact on different people depending on where they are or how they are at any particular point in life. If you have built mental toughness and inner resilience you are more likely to weather storms with more courage and perseverance. If however a situation catches you off guard, like COVID-19 did for all of us, the impact may be slightly more challenging. Meaning you need to pull your thoughts or yourself to a place where you can think and act with clarity, intention and purpose.
After an adequate amount of time it’s important to get back in the game with clarity, intention and purpose. Sometimes, taking time out will mean that you decide to abandon the path you have been on to take a completely different path. It may mean that you abandon some projects in favour of the ones that are most profitable not just to your bank account but also to your soul. It’s not unheard of for leaders to take a sabbatical and discover that their life purpose is philanthropy instead of the pursuit of a six or seven figure salary. It may also mean that revise the vision of your company because you want to be more, earn more and make a different doing what you love. Ultimately, resuming is about get back in the driver’s seat of your life and creating the experiences you want in life and in business.
The global pandemic has given the world a new found appreciation for many things. I believe that we will see this becoming more pronounced in the business world as more leaders become more open to exploring mutually beneficial collaborations in previously untapped territories. We will also see both seasoned and young leaders tapping into their inner resilience to innovate, create and build organisations focusing more on impact and making a different than on profits only.
We are excited about what the future holds for SME leaders and look forward to supporting and serving them with a renewed appreciation for leadership in times of crisis.