Testing Leadership During Trying Times

The stress created by the global spread of the Coronavirus is an opportune time to take stock of how leaders, well….lead. Now more than ever, employees are looking to their leadership teams for strength, guidance and direction. Some leaders may have already had led their teams through storms — perhaps financial, operational, or otherwise — and are tapping into what they learned prior. However, many are leading through a storm for the first time and are being tested.

In the early days of Akamai circa 1999, ~200 of us were learning how to run what was then called the world wide web and manage a newly public company. Many of us were learning how to lead at scale and at an extreme pace with little-to-no experience. One of our founders was an academic, one a business school student and the other a computer scientist. The C-suite included seasoned leadership from outside the company, but it was the founders who were setting the tone for leadership across the organization — especially the computer scientist (Danny Lewin, RIP) who regularly tapped into his military background as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. He could be abrasive at times, barking out orders and demanding our attention to mastery, but he was smart as f-ck and his passion for the company was infectious, so we obeyed and tolerated his occasional tirades.

Before 9/11, the company was undergoing tremendous scale challenges while the internet bubble was showing signs of an impending burst. Danny knew we were all feeling the strain and one day decided an inspirational message was in order to rally the troops. The company was distributed across the globe — in the time before Zoom or Hangouts. So, he wrote a long email to the entire company about leadership that today most of us who were leading at that time can summarize in three main points:

To inspire trust: Lead by Example

To build trust among teammates: Suffer Together

To restore trust when it weakens: Hold People Accountable

When September 11, 2001 hit us hard both personally and as a business, most of us had never managed teams through a crisis. So, when the world was in crisis (and we lost Danny on the first plane that hit the towers), the points he made about leadership were absolutely brought to light. We did our best to lead by example, we suffered together and we held ourselves and each other accountable. The trust built among our teams was like no other I had experienced and many of those young leaders — some of my dearest friends — are now master leaders of teams and companies; quite surely in part from what we all experienced together in 2001.

With the world in crisis today, leaders should consider Danny’s advice.

  • Lead by Example: If you tell people to self-isolate and work from home, then you too should work from home. If you are restricting travel for employees, abide by those same restrictions. If team members are clueless about how to work effectively from home, demonstrate how it’s done or appoint experienced employees as mentors to guide the newbs. If you expect people to communicate clearly and often, do the same. During times of confusion and ambiguity, leaders are the guiding light — even if the only thing you can say is “I don’t know”. Being vulnerable and not having all the answers can be as powerful as having a perfect plan. It also allows others to do the same.
  • Suffer Together: Now more than ever is when teams need empathy; that you’re in this together. Employees are not just worried about personal illness; they are worried about their family, trips they have planned in the future, their personal finances and how business will fare during a volatile time. No one will be unscathed from this current crisis. You are all suffering together. Create forums for people to talk with each other, offer support and listen. Even if many people in your organization do not get sick or have ill family members, they are dealing with a crisis that is very real. The news and social media is in their faces and they will not ignore it. Accept this and share your own worries and concerns. Show your vulnerabilities and they will do the same. From my 9/11 experience, I can say that crying with co-workers was one of the most transformational moments in my career. No matter our differences, we had a shared experience that strengthened ties and allowed us to rise to the challenge and succeed.
  • Hold People Accountable: Times of crisis are when leaders show their true colors. Great business leaders during tough times are decisive and put the company, their employees, their customers and investors ahead of themselves. They are not seeking friends or trying to win a popularity contest and may make unfavorable decisions. Decisions like closing the office, cancelling a conference or back-burnering projects to accommodate business disruptions are not consensus building exercises. Decide and move forward. Once those tough calls are made, communicate very clearly who is accountable to execute on next steps. Set clear expectations on how everyone is expected to move forward; including communication protocols (cadence, timing and audience). Employees want leaders who can make calls — especially during tough times — even if they don’t like the decision.

If you are old-hat at dealing with times of crisis, reach out to the less experienced leaders in your network and offer a hand. If you are a first-timer, seek counsel from mentors, coaches and peers. You don’t need to figure this all out on your own. This is not time for heroics. Great leaders get help. We’ll get through this, just like we have in the past, and we’ll be ready for the next one. Be safe, lead…and wash your hands!

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