How to avoid Crisis Leadership Fatigue (the ‘marathon mentality’)

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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:

  • DO: be open with your team about what you know, what you don’t know, the facts of the situation and what needs to be worked out as a team. Invite them into an opportunity for them to be leaders themselves and be part of the problem-solving process. Your best people will relish the prospect and become leaders themselves.
  • DONT: pretend you know it all. Pretending to be the know-it-all leader has several faults: Firstly, it will be obvious that it is not genuine and you will lose trust with your team. Secondly, by pretending that to be the all-knowing leader, you will ‘crowd-out’ the space for your team’s own leadership to emerge. If your team asks you for an answer, don’t be afraid to reply “I don’t know. What would you do?”.

  • DO: Drive even more accountability than usual on to your leaders.  Set clear expectations for your team. Tell them explicitly “I need you to be the leader on ….”. Have even more regular meetings (several of my clients have moved from weekly to bi-weekly) to drive accountability. Make sure actions are identified and an owner made accountable. Make sure everyone has a number. 
  • DONT: Make yourself accountable for everything. It is easy to want to take on accountability for everything at this time. Save your own mental health and resist the urge. 

  • DO: Delegate decision-making as much as possible. Delegation is not an expression of weakness, it is the confident recognition of the limits of your own capabilities. Being in a crisis doesn’t suddenly mean you instantly know more about marketing than your Head of Marketing. Work out who is the right person to make any decision, and give them leadership on that issue. 
  • DONT: Centralise decision-making in yourself. Great people will want to be part of finding the answers. If you don’t allow them to be, you run the risk of demotivating them and potentially pitting them against any decisions that are made. You are not expected to make all the decisions in this crisis and your team will not thank you for it. 

  • DO: Know what you need and make sure it happens. We all need to do certain things in our lives to maintain our own mental health and perform at our best. This might be exercise, family time, reading time, sleep, meditation or something completely different. Don’t think of these things as selfish or ‘nice-to-haves’. In the long-term, they are essential to you, your employees and your business. Make sure you also encourage your employees to take time out. Vacations are not possible right now, but they will still need a break. You will get an energised, grateful and stronger leader back after a break.
  • DONT: Ignore your own health and well-being by always putting others first. To quote General McCrystal: “if I don’t workout, I’m an ugly person”. As a result, as Commanding Officer of Special Forces in Iraq, he dedicated 90 minutes each day to working out at the start of his day. You might think your team will thank you for your sacrifice of whatever it is that keeps you in a good, positive state of mental health, but they will not when you are grumpy, tired and unengaged. Not only that, you have then set an example that you expect them to sacrifice their own mental well-being is part of being a leader. This effect magnified throughout your business will lead to a culture of stress, poor health and a lot of sick days.

  • DO: Be yourself. If you are not a charismatic public speaker, there is no need to make a speech from Henry V. Communicate in a way that feels natural to you. This could be by video, voice note or the written word. It might involve public meetings or could be a 1-on-1s. Do what feels right for you and your style. As Field Marshal Slim famously said: “leadership is just plain you.”
  • DONT: Feel you need to become a new type of leader or change your personality. You are not Steve Jobs or Abraham Lincoln so don’t pretend to be. A critical element of leadership is authenticity and your team will instantly pick up on any falseness. 

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.

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