Courage in COVID - Seven Relevant Dare to Lead™ Lessons for Today
by Tara Cree, Ph.D., Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator and expert in leadership development (www.creeleadership.com)
We are being asked to lead in unprecedented times. This global crisis is a ‘first’ for all of us, and leaders and employees have been cast into a sea of unknowns and uncertainty. The adrenaline surge has passed, and we are now starting to recognize the severity and longevity of this crisis. To survive, we must shift our mindset to something longer term; creating a new normal while at the same time managing the collective exhaustion we are feeling. As we navigate this shift there are many lessons to be leveraged from Brené Brown’s research on courage and vulnerability. Below I review the seven most relevant leadership lessons from her Dare to Lead™ courage building program to help you and your teams cope and even thrive in the current reality.
Lesson # 1 – We need Brave Leaders now more than ever
Right now, we need leaders who are willing to show their true selves and who are willing to speak openly about their own worries and concerns in a way that is honest but does not create fear in others. This takes courage. Courage is not about being fearless. It is about being afraid of something and doing it anyway. It is about leaning into the vulnerability we might be feeling rather than armouring up or engaging in self-protective behaviour to avoid the discomfort of vulnerability.
Here are some examples of armour that I have seen from leaders during COVID19:
- Needing to be the expert and have all the answers, when let’s face it, no one has certainty, expertise, or answers right now.
- Fear of failure because the risks seem so big, which leads to paralysis or an inability to be bold and creative.
- Not talking about emotions, anxiety, fear even though we are all struggling at least a little bit right now.
As a leader, recognizing when you are putting on armour allows you to make the conscious decision to set it back down. Armour is the biggest barrier to courage. Instead, admit when you don’t have the answers, take risks, ask for help, feel the emotions. Humanity is demanding real, authentic leaders – flaws and all.
Lesson # 2 – FFTs: Being new at something is incredibly vulnerable
Doing something for the first time is the epitome of vulnerability. Which is why Brené calls it the F-ing first time (FFT). Listen to her podcast here on FFTs.
Think about all of the ‘firsts’ you and your teams might be going through right now: first global pandemic, first time homeschooling kids while working fulltime, first time working or leading remotely… These first times are pushing us out of our comfort zones, which can feel scary and vulnerable, and may cause us to pick up that armour (see lesson #1).
Here are the three steps Brené shares to help you and your staff get through these FFTs without armouring up:
- Normalize it or call it for what it is. This is new and you may not know how to do this all yet. It is okay to feel anxious, uncertain, or afraid. First times feel like that.
- Put things in perspective. This feeling is not permanent. Think back to just 4/6/8 weeks ago and all the things you have already figured out.
- Reality check expectations. Often our expectations about how quickly we will move through something are completely unrealistic. This will feel uncomfortable for a while. You need to be patient with yourself and others.
Using these steps and this language can help move through all these firsts (and there are surely more to come) with less negative impact.
Lesson #3 – We need to balance optimism (gritty faith) with realism (gritty facts)
If you want to successfully move people from a crisis mindset to one that is longer term, you need to give them both the gritty facts (impact on revenue, wages, jobs, etc.) and gritty faith (why you believe you will prevail).
This is based on the Stockdale Paradox (popularized by Jim Collins in Good to Great). James Stockdale was a US Naval Admiral who survived 8 years as a POW in Vietnam. When asked “who didn’t make it out alive?”, his answer was ‘the optimists’ who falsely believed they would get out quickly.
Stockdale on the other hand, found a way to stay alive by embracing both the harshness of his situation and a balance of healthy optimism. The way he explained it was: "You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."
You can use this lesson of balancing optimism and realism in your team communications. Are your communications all optimistic? Are you overselling certainty with gritty faith? Or are they all realistic, dire messages about the gritty facts? Communicating a balanced message will be most helpful for your team, who in the absence of either facts or faith will make up their own stories.
Lesson #4 – Leaders must invest time on fears and feelings
If you do not invest a reasonable amount of time paying attention to and listening to the fears and feelings of your staff, you will spend an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior. When we do not allow ourselves or others to feel, those feelings, unexpressed, come out in negative ways.
This is not about becoming a therapist or opening the door to constant venting. It simply means allowing some time for people to express their frustrations and offering empathy and compassion in return. Doing so will help them to move on far quicker than if you ignore it. If you want people to be productive and move past the crisis into creating a new normal, you need to make it okay to attend to their feelings. Today more than ever it is not possible to lead effectively without dealing with feelings.
Lesson #5 – Anxiety is one of the biggest feelings we need to attend to
Canadians are feeling unprecedented levels of anxiety, according to Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index. They report a decline in mental health overall, with the biggest increase in levels of anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, and isolation. This makes sense given the amount of uncertainty we are all dealing with.
Listen to Brené’s podcast here on two typical stress reactions when faced with anxiety – over functioning and under functioning and then watch for those behaviours in yourself and in your team members.
In general, the antidote to anxiety is calm. When you are feeling anxious, slow things down. Breathe deeply. Develop a calm practice (such as tactical breathing) so that you can draw on it when you need it.
Lesson #6 – We need psychologically safe workplaces
If people feel safe expressing their fears, anxiety, and exhaustion, you can support them with empathy and compassion. Supressing, denying, ignoring feelings doesn’t work. They just come out in different and mostly negative ways. And while this holds true at any time, it is even more important now with heightened levels of anxiety (see lesson #5).
Amy Edmondson, who coined the term Psychological Safety and wrote the book The Fearless Organization is a great resource for creating a culture of safety in the workplace where people feel safe sharing their feelings, thoughts, and opinions. But there is one simple thing you can do right now with your teams to move you in the right direction: Use ground rules.
When we are exhausted, stressed, or anxious we are not at our best. In fact, we tend to be our worst selves when we are afraid. Ground rules remind everyone what behaviour is appropriate and inappropriate, which helps us be more thoughtful and intentional about our behaviour and more conscious of how we show up. Now is the perfect time to create or revisit your ground rules, role model them as a leader, and hold people accountable to them.
Lesson # 7 – Empathy is the antidote to pretty much everything
Empathy is the number one tool leaders need draw on to get themselves, their teams, and their families from crisis to a new normal. When people are expressing those emotions that we have made it okay to attend to (see lesson #4), your response should be empathy. In other words, you need to make the person feel heard by connecting to the underlying emotion of what they are sharing.
Here are four steps to demonstrating empathy:
- Take the other person’s perspective. This requires listening to and honouring their story as their truth, even if it doesn’t fit with your experience of the situation.
- Withhold judgment. You cannot be empathetic and judgmental at the same time.
- Recognize their feelings and emotions. Pick up on their feelings based on what they are saying, not saying, body language, tone, and demeanour.
- Convey your understanding of those feelings. This is where people feel heard. Saying things like: “That’s really tough.” “It sounds like you are struggling with that” or “I can hear your frustration” is the language of empathy.
Magic happens when people feel heard. It dissipates emotions even when there are no solutions. You may not be able to solve the challenges of remote work, homeschooling, or fear of being sick, but you can most certainly offer empathy.
As leaders we make a choice every day and every moment: we can either be daring leaders, or we can be armoured leaders. Too many of us wake up every morning and put on our armour. This comes at a tremendous cost to us, our teams, and our organizations, and this could not be truer today. What choice are you making?
Tara Cree, Ph.D. is a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator and expert in leadership development (www.creeleadership.com). If you are interested in courage building skills for yourself or your organization, please contact email@example.com about the Dare to Lead™ program, which can be delivered one-on-one as a coaching program or in group workshops.
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