I used to think great leaders had the answers; now I think great leaders grapple with hard questions, especially the ones that elude easy answers.
I started my company a few months before the pandemic. Since then, almost every month has brought some massive world event, natural disaster, or important social movement. Each time something big happens, some CEOs speak out; some don’t; and Twitter comments on both groups.
I don’t think there is a “right” way to lead during hard times. Instead, as a leader, what’s most important is to figure out a style that is authentic to you and is what your team needs. Here are some guidelines that have helped me find my own style of leading during hard times.
Put on your oxygen mask first: It sounds obvious, but the world impacts you too. As a leader, your job is to absorb the stress of your team. But you can do that only when you have resilience and energy. During hard times, I double down on tools like meditation, executive coaching, therapy, and the true basics—sleep, exercise, and time with loved ones.
Share your process, not just the answer: Do you say something? Share the organizations you donated to? Keep calm and carry on? Talk with your team about how you’re grappling with these questions. It opens up a conversation and lets your team share what they’re looking for from you. It also lets people know they aren’t alone in navigating hard times.
Reiterate resources: Hard times are exactly when your team needs to be reminded of resources. Even if you feel like you’ve communicated ERGs, mental health tools, and other resources, now is exactly the time to remind your team of the support they have and make it really easy to access them.
Allow for differences: One of my team members might find it really calming to spend the first few minutes of a Zoom call talking about what’s going on in the world. To another, that can be energy draining. There’s no perfect way to deal with these valid differences. Instead, build a culture where people feel comfortable voicing their preferences, giving feedback, and assuming positive intent when a colleague takes a different approach.
I’ve read many surveys with a stat like, “50%-plus of millennials want their company to take a stand on social issues.” That’s really interesting, but it also means that there are many people who do not want their company to take a stand. Even at a small company, there’s no way that everyone will agree on the right approach.
Remember that your “big” isn’t someone else’s big: Based on a million different factors, what I consider to be the most important and pressing news is probably not what someone else considers most important. I served in the Army, so I was passively paying attention to the war in Afghanistan since I served there in 2010. Last year, when the U.S. withdrew, it felt like the rest of America suddenly was paying attention and had really strong opinions. In addition to watching the terrible human tragedies unfold, it felt odd to suddenly have people asking me about the war.
It can be frustrating to feel like people should be paying attention to something when they aren’t. But this is also an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn what your colleagues are paying attention to.
There IS a wrong answer: Performative stances aren’t the way to go. The “right answer” is really about the process of feedback, listening, and accounting for individual differences. But there is a wrong answer, and that’s a formulaic process that spits out a performative stance. That would feel like this: Some issue hits the news cycle, senior leadership, without input from the rest of the company, gets together and says, “We should say something, otherwise it’ll look weird,” and then we issue a statement on social media. Once the news cycle dies down, we go back to business as usual.
While there isn’t an easy checklist that’ll help you navigate these unprecedented times, hopefully these guidelines will help you and your team figure out the approach that fits best. Going through the iterative process of checking in with your team and learning what works, you’ll be building a culture of feedback, which is the bedrock of healthy company culture.
It may seem scary to share some of your own uncertainty with your team, but I think Paul English has it right: “People will follow confidence, but they’ll be loyal to vulnerability.”
Roxanne Petraeus is cofounder and CEO of Ethena.