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My Top 5 Practices for Leadership During Global Crisis (Or Anytime)

25 Years Condensed Into 5 Incisive Practices

lightning across a dark sky

I knew I had my work cut out for me last month when the CFO Leadership Council invited me to help kick off their Masterclass Keynote Series, sponsored by the MIT Sloan School.

My assignment? To address 550 CFOs across six continents with my top five principles for leadership during this time of global crisis.

Oh, and I had to do it all in ten minutes or less.

I actually relished the challenge. For more than 25 years, leadership has been my passion project — both in my role as CFO at companies like Microsoft and Novartis, and in my executive coaching practice. But this time I faced a new milestone: boiling everything down to just five incisive leadership fundamentals.

Mark Twain has been quoted as saying, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As I sat down to prepare my presentation, I felt Twain’s pain. A day-long workshop on crisis leadership would hardly cover the topic. Now I had to fit it into ten minutes.

A difficult task, but not impossible. Drawing inspiration from my own work experience, I distilled the extensive archive of leadership content I’ve studied and practiced over the past 25 years into its most impactful essentials.

The hour of my virtual keynote came. I watched the attendee numbers grow. By the time I relinquished the mic, the CFOLC survey results showed 98% of the audience agreed that the following five tenets are more important than ever:

1. Cultivate Awareness

Without awareness, there is only habit and pattern. With awareness, there is perspective and choice. In other words, awareness is the starting point of conscious leadership.

Three types of awareness are particularly beneficial for leaders:

  • Self-awareness allows us to perceive our own behaviors from a “third-party” perspective — recognizing which choices serve our goals, and which undermine them.

  • Interpersonal awareness enables us to sense the things that remain unsaid — the vital messages between the words.

  • Situational awareness attunes us to the energy in the room, helping us identify any number of signals across the group, including excitement, anger, or skepticism.

Cultivate these three types of awareness, and you’ll enjoy better-informed perspectives which, in turn, yield opportunities to make more impactful choices. The most effective ways I know to cultivate awareness are to practice mindfulness, meditation, and prayer — and to proactively seek performance feedback from those around you.

2. Embrace Your Core Values

Core values such as integrity, loyalty, accountability, and family make you who you are. They serve as decision-making guideposts throughout every day.

Senior leaders don’t get hired for their technical skills. That’s just table stakes. Your true value lies in your humanity and your ability to advance your organization’s vision in ways no one else can.

Your humanity, embodied by your core values, sets you apart from the crowd and defines your leadership approach. If you strongly value innovation, that will manifest in your daily actions. If you value teamwork, your team members will feel it every minute.

You were hired because of your core values, not despite them. Those values come as part of the package your organization got when they hired you — and your colleagues expect you to live them every day, leaving your unique mark on the group’s culture and collective values.

If you’re not certain what your core values are, take a moment right now to write them down. Re-read them, say them out loud, and embrace their truth. This will bring clarity which will fuel assertive practice of your principles in action. For example, if you value transparency, in a difficult conversation you might affirm to yourself: “I speak clearly, directly, honestly and considerately both to myself and to others.”

3. Strive For Confident Curiosity

Business leaders are used to reaping the rewards of their knowledge. But over-emphasis on knowing (a.k.a., “knowership”) often cultivates a corporate culture in which leaders are afraid to make any mistakes.

None of us can be right every time. When we try to pretend otherwise, we risk alienating the people we value most while cutting ourselves off from valuable learning opportunities.

Great leaders are certainly aware of their own expertise. They hone it daily, even as they acknowledge their mistakes and strive to do better tomorrow. A mindset of curiosity reminds us of all the things we still don’t know. It allows us to stand confident in our abilities while remaining open to fresh ideas and insights. In fact, we proactively seek them out. This is what I call “confident curiosity.”

Here’s how one of Amazon’s Leadership Principles sums it up:

“Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs. Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.”

In other words, knowledge is great — but it takes curiosity to open yourself up to the world’s full and ever-changing range of options and solutions.

4. Develop “Response-ability”

The late Stephen R. Covey said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

I couldn’t agree more. In each new situation we face, we’re presented with opportunities to choose. While the options might be limited, we always have the option to choose our response. Chains can hold a person down, but they can’t keep the mind from soaring. Embrace your freedom to choose your response, and no prison on earth can confine you — or your power to lead.

When things get tough, many of us play the victim of circumstance. As convenient as this role may be, it relinquishes ownership of the decisions we make. Freedom is a choice, and every choice is freedom.

Leaders constantly scan three spheres: the inner sphere of direct control, the center sphere of indirect influence, and the outer sphere of unpredictable external factors. Effective leaders focus their attention on the two innermost spheres, keeping an eye on the third for opportunities and perils.

5. Leverage Range

Many executives will admit to using a “work persona” — a mask sculpted to resemble the ideal leader they believe others expect of them. For example, they might continually play the role of the hard-nosed skeptic, or the subject-matter expert, or the peacekeeper.

But every mask comes with its share of problems. For one thing, it creates an atmosphere of doubt and mistrust because it forces your colleagues to constantly guess what you’re holding back. A masked approach also limits your options because it restricts the range of insights and abilities you bring to the table.

Great leaders are most effective when they skillfully wield their full range of emotions and attitudes. Some situations call for humor. Others may cry out for anger, love, determination, resilience, toughness, skepticism, boldness, altruism, tradition, excitement, reserve, colorfulness, diligence, or ambition. All of these are within you. Your job is to apply them authentically and skillfully.

When you learn how to trust your own intuition, your range expands, and your effectiveness multiplies. The outcomes speak for themselves.

The Power Five

As strong as each of these principles is on its own, together they form the most powerful leadership framework I’ve encountered in my years in the Fortune 500. Used in tandem, each of these principles reinforces and nurtures the others. Here they are again, in the most condensed form possible:

1. Cultivate awareness

2. Embrace your core values

3. Strive for confident curiosity

4. Develop “response-ability”

5. Leverage your range

In “normal” times, I’ve found that many leaders harbor blind spots which severely diminish their effectiveness. Working with the unique complexities and personalities of any organization, these leaders can only achieve a fraction of their full potential.

Add an unprecedented global pandemic and the painful throes of social change, and any leader will feel as if they’re swimming upstream. But if you can learn the power of being true to your values and earn the trust of your team, it’s possible to lead with vision that evolves authentically from the inside out.

Look for opportunities to put these five principles into practice today. It takes clarity on your core values and commitment to seeing them through. You’ll soon reap the same rewards I’ve seen so many of my clients enjoy over the years — even in these times of global crisis.


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