We often think of leaders at the head of a boardroom table, a charging army, a press room podium. They speak, we listen. In crises, we are at the edge of our seat. Our jobs, financial well-being, even our very lives depend on every word.
As our leaders help us define crises, it’s logical to think that the reverse is true: that crises can define a leader. However, “you first have to have the traits to navigate the situation,” said Johnson & Wales University associate professor David Hood, Ph.D.
So what are these qualities that form the foundation of a leader? Can we use them to define great leadership? Like finding a resolution in an evolving crisis, pinpointing an answer is easier said than done.
What is a Leader?
“Even in normal times, there is no single definition of leadership,” Hood said. But there is a framework. Scholars have named three baseline traits: charisma, the ability to motivate, and the ability to influence.
Leadership is situational. Simply put, the expression “rise to the occasion” applies. It’s possible that a person possesses the above qualities but is never faced with an opportunity, like a crisis, that allows them to evolve. Hood said that the traits are also dynamic and the guidance of a moral compass—both on the part of the leaders and their audience—comes into play.
When it comes to selecting a leader, Hood said, “We have a tendency to pick and choose parts based on a general idea of our personality and not on the majority personality.” He continued, “Leaders have a way of finding a time and space. The call for a certain type of leadership may not be permanent, but it’s what the majority feels we need right now.”
Leadership Qualities in a Crisis
In the time of a crisis, it would seem that a very specific set of leadership skills would yield optimal results. Not so fast, cautions Hood, “The type of leader we need in a crisis is the same type of leader we always need.”
He offered former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a prime example. During his time in the Oval Office, Roosevelt led the country through two of its most trying and uncertain times: The Great Depression and World War II. Here are characteristics that Hood said he demonstrated with great skill that, while they bolstered the country during times of struggle and despair, would also be useful in any era.
Curiosity: “It’s necessary in a crisis to be able to ask questions,” Hood stated. He cited Roosevelt’s intelligence as one of his key qualities.
Communication: Hood continued, “He was a great speaker and offered clear and transparent messaging when he delivered his Fireside Chats, because it was important for him to be as relatable and authentic as possible.” Evidence of the country’s dependence on FDR’s messaging can be seen in this excerpt from Esquire, written by Pultizer prize-winning author Saul Bellow, of a scene on a Chicago street and how the world stopped every time a broadcast aired:
“The blight hadn’t yet carried off the elms and under them drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios…. They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice, its odd Eastern accent, which in anyone else would have irritated Midwesterners. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by. You felt joined to these unknown drivers, men and women smoking their cigarettes in silence, not so much considering the president’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurance from it.”
Hood also mentioned that it’s important for leaders to convey information in transparent language, even if the facts are hard to hear. “They have to be able to say, ‘This might be scary for you, but it could be scarier if you don't have the information you need.”
Self-confidence yet humility: According to Hood, FDR was “self-confident in the right ways,” meaning that he inspired confidence from his followers but was able to readily admit his mistakes.
Ability to overcome adversity: “What’s interesting about FDR is that he did so very publicly and in many areas of his life from his family to his health to his stature,” Hood said of this trait. “This helped him look empathetic and relatable. If you can’t do that, your messages can get lost.”
Holding Leaders Accountable
Indeed, there is a great deal of pressure on leaders to do the right thing and make the right call at exactly the right moment, especially when the future of their followers hangs in the balance. Add to that, that these same followers are judging every action—and rightly so, said Hood.
“We install leaders and give them great power,” he began. “When it comes to political leaders, there’s a notion that we invested in them, be it taxes, etc., and they owe us something. They are stewards of what we are trying to tell them to do, and it’s justified for us to tell them if they are doing a good or bad job.”
This “judgment” plays out in contemporary society in numerous but not always obvious ways. “Whether we watch CNN or Fox, we are telling people that we feel that the majority of views represented on that channel are correct,” Hood said. “The levers of society are constantly pulled based on decisions we make. Everything is tabulated. We are voting every time we spend our money by what we choose to consume.”
In the case of the current COVID-19 crisis, Hood said our right to judge extends because our current governmental leaders “are the ones working outside the home, while we are inside, to get us outside again. It is a turning point for the country.”
Hood said he has been impressed by how community leaders like business owners are stepping up during this time. “I just got an email from Amazon about how they are supporting their employees. Companies don’t have to do this. They could just keep the profits. It’s really cool.”
In the end, the effectiveness of a leader, in crisis or not, seems to circle back to an underlying current of morality, which can be difficult for even the strongest leader to weather. Hood summarized it when he said, “You have to be willing to do what’s unpopular but for the greater good and to be able to fall for it. It can be lonely for leaders, but it is so necessary.”
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