The harsh light of remote leadership

by Sandy Wright and Milo-Arne Wilkinson

Discover the evolving landscape of crisis leadership in the face of COVID-19 challenges, and learn how to adapt and inspire as a leader during these uncertain times with ELEVEN's expert insights and resources.

Here we are in perhaps the greatest challenge this generation will face in our lifetimes – notwithstanding those currently in places of war, displacement, famine or other privations, and for whom, COVID-19 is yet just another daily threat to survival.  It’s sobering to remember this when we’re fortunate to be citizens of an island far away from other dangers.

Nevertheless, we’re in massive disruption where the prospect of large numbers of our population becoming ill and swamping medical resources was too horrifying to contemplate. Suddenly, every person is faced with, if not mortality, then the possibility of ill health, contagion, loss of income, livelihood and normalcy.

There’s something in the human psyche that craves leadership in a crisis. Under threat, our tolerance for shades of grey is low and our craving for leadership becomes binary.

We either want someone who will tell us what to do and provide certainty (autocrat) or we want someone who’ll lift us and guide us to the promised land (messiah). Preferably both at the same time.

Think about some of the criticism of political leaders – they’re either too draconian or not enough, or too keen to open up the for the ‘new normal’ or not keen enough. Some have surprised us and some have reinforced our views of them. If we’re at either end of that continuum, we’ll use our confirmation bias to find evidence to affirm our beliefs.

So, what can you do as a leader now? The internet is awash with articles about leading teams remotely and working from home – 42.5 million results in 43 seconds, in fact!  Every respected leadership institution is represented – Harvard, Deloitte, Insead, Forbes … the list goes on. You’ll learn from them – they’re well researched and provide insight you can rely on.

Then there are the breezy quick reads, with titles like ‘five tips for leading remote teams’, ‘the key to leading teams remotely’. You get the idea. Again, good common sense ideas that give you comfort you’re already doing many of these already.

Let’s try another tack in examining your leadership and what character is being forged for you under this pressure? Where are you on the autocrat/messiah continuum – are you fulfilling your inner autocrat or becoming the messiah you always believed you were? Or you surprising yourself at how you’re blossoming by recruiting both personas at the appropriate times?

Let’s explore how those personas may play out in the workplace.

You can measure a [person’s] character by the choices [they] make under pressure.

Winston Churchill

Meet Peter

Pre-pandemic, Peter was a well-respected, long-standing business-owner who ran a tight ship. He hand-picked his team who were dedicated, hard-working and loyal, many of whom had stayed with him for years. Customers regularly rated the business highly and were happy to recommend it to others.

Peter wasn’t a fan of flexible working, but against his better judgement, recognised he had to allow limited flexibility to be seen as a ‘modern’ leader adjusting to current employee expectations.

When the government mandated lockdown, he was shocked. Aside from the need to equip his workforce to continue working from their homes and keep the business going, he quickly noticed the loss of proximity and inability to see them working created a deal of anxiety for him. Luckily, his business would survive because it could easily move online, but his role as a leader of people was being sorely tested.

He mandated daily online meetings, which started out well with good-natured discussion. Soon, however, the meetings took the form of a report from each about what they did the day before and an interrogation of the detail. Then he would order them to write down what had to be done before the next meeting. In his intensity, he failed to notice the eye rolls and body language of his people. Neither did he know that they were communicating secretly on the chat function and a What’s App group, where this loyal and hard-working team were rapidly losing respect … even mocking him. What’s more, some were starting to absent themselves, claiming sickness.

Peter’s anxiety in this crisis unleashed his inner autocrat. If he doesn’t recognise this and change his behaviour, his leadership may not survive the period. Productivity may slow and his business might suffer more than can be attributed to the pandemic.

Meet Kim

Kim, in contrast, ran a consultancy business that relied on online bookings with all of her consultants. Kim’s strength lay in her reputation and charisma in dealing with the consultants, many of whom were in awe of and inspired by her. The business attracted loyal customers who developed strong relationships with the consultants. Trust and harmony were strongly evident. Pre-COVID, things ran like clockwork and communication among Kim and her team was frequent. It was a face-to-face and high-touch relationship with clients, now prohibited in the current environment.

However, during the pandemic, Kim stopped contacting the consultants directly and instead posted inspirational quotes and wisdom on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. These posts were high on possibility and the future, low on any detail. There was no inquiry or curiosity about how any of them were faring individually, nor did she encourage any sharing of experience.  She made little effort to support the consultants with JobKeeper and instead told people to access JobSeeker.

On social media, she hinted there were surprises in store when lockdown eased. Sure enough, a week before re-opening, she announced new premises with new equipment. A slick marketing campaign accompanied the opening, with uplifting music and motherhood statements about the glorious new future awaiting everyone.

Not one consultant had been ‘consulted’. When the website was released, all of their names were still on there. She assumed they all still wanted to be part of the team, not realising some of them had become so disillusioned and disconnected with her they were talking about creating a rival business.

Meet Heather

Then there’s Heather. She had only recently been appointed to a more senior role in her organisation. In fact, she was the second choice for the promotion after the person offered the role was poached by a competitor. Heather knew she was going to have to prove herself because everyone knew. Her new team was made up of former peers, only some of whom supported her.

She decided early on she was going to prove to everyone she should’ve been first choice. Then came the lockdown. The organisation was sending everyone home in a few days. She called her team together and laid out a strategy for handling the crisis that she had worked on all night. She made it clear which decisions were mandatory with no negotiation, which required negotiation and agreement from everyone, or if no agreement, then she would decide. Importantly, she made clear what decisions were entirely theirs and what accountability and support there was for them.

Heather then talked about how this strategy was designed to give people structure and safety, so they could express fears, hopes and feel confident of being heard. In consultation with the team, they crafted a series of messages to go out to staff appealing to their ability to rise to the occasion, how trusted they were, and how much faith the senior team had in them.

With her team, Heather set up a rhythm for online meetings over a month with a variety of purposes –  some were task reporting and information sharing, some were designated as 20-minute ‘coffee’ meetings where checking in and personal news was only shared. A ‘black hat’ meeting was held where problems, fears and issues were raised, followed by a ‘blue sky’ meeting a couple of days later where solutions, hopes and future-focussed discussions occurred. No more than two hours of online meetings per day were mandated, unless agreed on or unusual circumstances demanded.

Heather’s ability to shift gears in style and recognition of different needs won respect. She was able to curb the extremes of autocracy or saviour behaviour, while recognising the advantages in small doses of both.

How has the pressure of COVID-19 revealed your character? Here’s how to perform all the roles your people expect of you:

  • Like Heather, find your areas of structure and autocracy to give some certainty.
  • Assess the content of your meetings – is there a variety of purpose and length of time, or are you running a habitual process that only serves you?
  • Online meetings tire the brain because we can’t rely on proximity to pick up on what’s going on, so we have to concentrate more. Make sure the content is worthy of full concentration, and not just a one-way process that serves the leader and nobody else.
  • Have you erred too far into Kim’s region by being all about the future and possibility, with little focus on induvial needs?
  • Or have you not been Kim at all? When was the last time you inspired your people with language that stirs their better selves? Have you taken them for granted? Remember, the words you use determines the emotions and then behaviours of others. As a leader, your ‘command and control’ style won’t work in this climate or any point forward for that fact. The world has changed and ‘telling people what to do’ will no longer work and gain respect simultaneously.
  • Ask yourself honestly, what’s your character under pressure and what do you want it to be?
  • You don’t have to control the universe as a leader, you need to start with yourself. Ask yourself, what you would like people to be THINKING, FEELING and DOING as a result of dealing with you? 
  • Be prepared to show and feel uncertainty and vulnerability, because it will only improve your own honesty and external credibility to the people you lead and your industry. People are longing for that positive message, but will not believe the positive messages if we’re not transparent about the negative parts as well.

We serve as crisis leadership experts and have seen a procession of challenged leaders over the past six months. Our observation is simple, those willing to admit they’re struggling in this climate are more likely to adapt and adjust, than those whose words say ‘they’re fine’ and their actions show otherwise. Remember, whatever impact a leader has on a culture can take 18 months to undo. Intentional leadership is now the ‘new normal’.

In the climate we find ourselves in and the uncertain future we face, the shape of leadership is fundamentally different. ELEVEN can help you navigate the reality of your environment and ensure you’re ready to respond empathetically, unemotionally and appropriately. ELEVEN also has some useful resources for leadership in isolation.