Ouellette: On crisis and leadership
We are drawn to leaders who treat us with respect, show integrity and offer hope
I recently shared an article with friends and colleagues titled, “In a crisis, is where leaders are made. Pay close attention to what they do.” Like everything else in life, great leadership is situational. The kind of leader we need in a situation shifts depending on the variables we face. It’s social, psychological and cultural. It’s tangible and intangible. It also can be real or perceived. But it is always honest, respectful and hopeful.
Our country has faced many situations that required us to be inspired and follow certain people, just when we needed it. In every case, there are certain common patterns towards success, that all of us can identify with and trigger us to follow.
We have evolved to instinctively feel honesty. If we tune in, we really know if someone is telling us the truth or not. When rhetoric, spin or untruths are detected, we lose trust and start looking elsewhere for the answers.
A good example is when Rudy Giuliani spoke to New Yorkers in the hours and days after the 9/11 tragedy. He was speaking to and for all Americans. His reaction, his honesty and his command of our emotions was as real as it could get. We could relate and we were connected. It can be argued that Rudy Giuliani has not necessarily used that authenticity or integrity in every situation, but during 9/11 it was real, and most of us would’ve followed him anywhere.
We are seeing the same thing in New York right now with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
He has been clear, straightforward and very honest. He speaks in our language – a combination of fear and courage, and calls on us all to get serious. Gov. Chris Sununu’s approach is also transparent and no-nonsense, and while not all people in New Hampshire might agree with him, they are following him and his lead on this. We recognize and relate to his honesty.
Integrity is linked to our tribe too. The two governors lead from their home states and communicate to the people they understand and relate to. That makes us want to gift our trust to them. However, our tribes can shift based on what the crisis is. For 9/11, our tribe was the country. For Covid-19, it is the human race. If leaders represent only a fraction of their tribe, the others will seek to follow someone else who demonstrates integrity to all.
You can’t fake or outthink integrity, you either have it or you don’t. And we all know the difference.
If you want to upset and alienate, show people disrespect. If you want to have a strong relationship with those who follow you, show an immense amount of respect. Respect mirrors distribution of itself equally.
When we are respected we become confident. When respected, we listen, we are kind, we know exactly what to say and when, and we know what to do. Every conflict and problem in the world can be solved when respect is demonstrated.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has legitimate, expert and referent power – he is a clear professional. He uses this power with immense respect. When he asks us to wash our hands and social-distance at the same time he gives us grave news, we feel respected and assured that he has our best interest in mind.
Respect is not something we can gift people in a casual way or nuance it as politeness or some delicate communications style.
Watching our leaders’ sort through this crisis varies from being too cautious to minimizing the situation. Some are putting their leadership at political risk, because what they are doing and saying does not feel intellectually right or safe for them. If they responded too quickly, they may be wrong and criticized. Too slow? Criticized again. But ask yourself which outcomes will demonstrate the most respect for the followers. That’s where you lead from and that’s what followers will respond to.
Hope is a sense of certainty, compassion and shared purpose that draws us to be responsible for the solution. We are in it together, and we can only do it together. This is the opposite of “only I can solve the problem.” Rather, it is the reality, based on integrity and respect, that says, “We can do it, we will do it and I need your help.”
When John F Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you …” he was shifting responsibility to the citizens, and when and if we have a hand in it, we have hope. When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream,” he showed us the way to a better place. There were no illusions that it would be easy, or it would happen fast, just that it was the direction and we would get there.
During one of Governor Cuomo’s crisis updates, he told us things would no doubt be hard, but life will go on. He showed us our own fear, and then with integrity and respect, showed us how he would help us all find our way. Even with the terrible truth, some of us felt better.
We are drawn to leaders who put the solution squarely on us all. These leaders are not just the public ones. Every doctor and nurse, hospital worker, grocery clerk, business owner, neighbor and citizen are leading right now.
We must face this significant challenge with integrity and honesty, respect for each other, and be the hope that we all need to be.
Russ Ouellette is president and senior executive coach at Sojourn Partners of Bedford.