Where does leadership — true, authentic leadership — come from?
My friend, the late Warren Bennis, claimed that it comes from crucibles — those reality-based, value-testing, character-shaping moments that leaders face from time to time. I remember such a moment back in 1992 as the high-tech company I worked for was spiraling downward, going through layoff after layoff. It was my job as a fairly new manager to tell my friends and colleagues who was staying and who was going. Those months shaped who I would become as a leader — and did so in a manner that the most experiential training program could not.
Typically, leaders face these crucibles infrequently. Until COVID-19 hit the world.
2020 presented leaders with uncountable opportunities to test their mettle, to forge their leadership character and values, and to chisel their leadership brand. In my 27+ years of developing leaders, I have never seen such opportunity … if one chooses to see what we faced in 2020 as opportunity and not as a tortuous soon-to-be-forgotten nightmare.
Even if you didn’t consciously embrace the crucibles that 2020 threw at you as a leader, it still is a worthy project to pause now, turn around, and look at where we traveled in the last 12 months.
An Optimism-Crushing Pandemic
Many leaders began 2020 — like I did — with tremendous optimism. Plans were finalized and strategies were confidently put in place to ensure that 2020 was to be a banner year. While we may have had contingency plans to address little hiccups that may occur, none of us expected the explosion that was to descend on the world in February and March.
Think back to March and April and what you as a leader were struggling with:
- Working from home — logistical issues
- Working from home — family issues
- Grappling with tremendous uncertainty of what we need to do today and this week.
- Growing uncertainty of what our organization would be doing next month.
- Trying in vain to apply structures and processes that clearly no longer worked in this new world.
- Helping team members cope with the compounding stress.
Take a minute and write down the challenges you faced as a leader since the pandemic began. Seriously, write them down. We’ll wait.
How did you as leader respond? Some leaders muddled; they reluctantly adapted to the ever-changing circumstances hoping that "things will get back to normal any day now." Muddling isn’t leading.
Some leaders looked toward the future and realized that the very nature of work was changing. How we did things — interfacing with prospects, clients, and team members; working with and supporting each other — was changing. And, for some of us, WHAT we did was also changing. Anyone in the travel, learning, recreation, dining, hotel, higher education, and other industries stood at the edge of the pandemic precipice and looked into a blank space. (At Entelechy where a large share of our business comes from face-to-face leadership development, our 2020 class schedule vanished virtually overnight; it was breathtaking in its speed and finality.)
And then, something amazing happened. Some leaders acted. They looked at their circumstances and elected to reinvent their mission, their products/services, their processes. They turned inward to their team members for ideas. They turned outward to examine the new landscape. They then pointed the way … and helped their team members align to the new path.
Here’s the point: Whether you reinvented or muddled, the fact is that you emerged (or are still re-emerging) on the other side. What did you learn? About leading? About your team? About yourself? To miss the opportunity to reflect, learn, and grow from what we just went (and are still going) through would be the most tragic misstep of your leadership journey.
Go back to the list of challenges you faced. Next to each, write down your learnings. Reflect on how you have changed and grown as a leader. Moving forward, accentuate those behaviors and traits that you’d like to define you as a leader.
I can virtually guarantee that you will never face another global pandemic with all its associated trials, challenges, and crucibles. And you will likely never have the opportunity to shape so dramatically the leader that lies within you as you do right now.
Look back on 2020 as the learning and growth opportunity it was. Through it all, you have been forged as the leader you are today.
You might also like our article, Leaders Aren't Trained; They're Forged. In it, we discuss the core tenets of how people learn new leadership behaviors — acquiring new knowledge and skills, applying what we learned, receiving feedback on our new skills, observing strong leaders, etc. — and examine how today's virtual learning offerings fall short of delivering the much-needed hands-on learning experiences leaders need in order to develop and grow. Most importantly, we offer a solution to "Zoom doom;" Virtual learning that is dynamic, engaging, and impactful.