Most business owners in my experience are highly conscientious leaders. They are passionate about their company, their staff and their customers. Most work a lot harder than the average office-worker. Many of these business owners are now starting to suffer from crisis fatigue yet they are also bombarded with articles and messages suggesting they ‘step up to become a crisis leader’.
This article argues that while much of the overwhelming amount of ‘crisis leadership’ advice being communicated is useful, it raises the bar for small business leadership to unrealistic levels in the long term. Instead, I recommend adopting an alternative model for sustainable leadership, which I call ‘the marathon mentality’. This involved focusing instead on how to build great leadership in your business, instead of trying to be a great leader yourself.
Six weeks in and I felt drained. The pressure of being an officer on an operational tour of Iraq was starting to get to me. I was trying to lead by example 24 hours a day. I had this constant pressure of needing to have all the answers. I felt I had to be taking every decision. After talking it through with my commanding officer one day, he said to me: “You have 4 other leaders in your troop. Focus on getting them to lead.”
During the Corona crisis, there have been hundreds of articles and posts on the subject of leadership in crisis. While many are great, a high proportion focus on the behaviours of the leader himself and how they need to ‘step up’. The implication here is that you need to step up until this crisis is over. To become this visionary, decisive, all-knowing, empathetic, all-round 5 star leader. But how long will this crisis continue for? It could be months and possibly even years away and perhaps your business will never even return to ‘normal’. Are you really expected to keep this ‘sprint’ up indefinitely?
As all business owners know already, leadership in small businesses is a demanding role in normal times. It can involve late nights, stress and personal sacrifices, even in ‘peacetime’ Are you really supposed to up your game for months on end? Being expected to work harder, be available, ‘step up’ for months on end and effectively become the Winston Churchill of your business is neither a realistic, nor appropriate thing to ask business owners to do. It is like asking a marathon runner to run the first half of their race at 10k pace, and they continue at the same pace the second half. The result: they will most likely ‘hit the wall’ and burn out.
This crisis is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires the ability to stay committed to a long-term goal while keeping yourself working at a sustainable pace. Marathon-runners often talk of sticking to “conversational pace” and this is a useful guide for business owners: if you are working at a pace where normal conversations are not possible, have a think whether you can keep on doing this in a few months time.
Instead, ‘Sustainable Leadership
There is another way however. What I call sustainable leadership (the ‘marathon mindset’).. Sustainable leadership in crisis is about recognising that creating leadership in aggregate across your organisation is more important than what leadership you alone can offer. Imagine you have a leadership measuring jug, representing the total amount of leadership in your organisation. By ‘stepping up’, you might add a little to begin with, but you will quickly see more leak out as your team takes a lesser role, assuming you will take the lead. After a while, you will have nothing left to give as fatigue kicks in.
Imagine this crisis as a marathon. Marathon runners aim to avoid what is known as a ‘negative split’ - when the first second half of a marathon race is run slower than the first half. Your approach to leadership should be similar: make sure you can give as much in the second half of this crisis as you can in the first. As we still don’t even know the timescales, this means you need to be leading at no faster than ‘conversational pace’; a pace you can sustain almost indefinitely.
But you still need leadership, right? If this extra leadership is not coming from you, the only alternative way to sustainably increase your stock of leadership is by encouraging it across your organisation. You will find that many of your team will love being asked to take a lead in the crisis. It will stir some fire in their bellies and offer them a chance to show what they are made of.
How to develop sustainable leadership in your organisation
Here are some practical ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ to help you create sustainably great crisis leadership in your business:
To recap, general discourse about leadership is centred on the concept of ‘the leader’ and how you can raise your game to meet the needs of the Corona crisis. But leaders are only human and most conscientious business owners were already at capacity before the crisis hit. As a result, increasing expectations on conscientious owners is counter-productive and unhelpful. Instead, adopt the ‘marathon mindset’ of keeping you and your team going for the long-haul. Build sustainable leadership in your organisation instead by building more of it at all levels of the organisation.
Michael Harley is the founder and CEO of Breakthrough, a London-based EOS implementation and business coaching company with a particular obsession with building great leadership and teamwork in businesses owners.