Employees expect leaders to lead, to show resilience and communicate hope

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By Dave Hickey, FCA

Leadership matters most – and is hardest to do well – when people face tangible threats, when old ways of working or interacting with others are no longer possible, and when confusion and anxiety abound. These are brutal times for business, for business leaders, for staff and their families or dependents.

I first wrote these words at the start of 2021 as the third, most brutal, wave of COVID washed over Ireland and the first vaccines were being – slowly – provided to only the most vulnerable.

Now, almost two years later, COVID is not gone but manageable – so far, but we’re still dealing with its economic, supply chain and societal impacts.

On top of that we have seen:

  • the return of high inflation,
  • increasing interest rates,
  • massive immigration caused by the invasion of Ukraine resulting in even more pressure on our inadequate housing supply,
  • fuel inflation and shortages,
  • all topped off with the coldest weather we’ve experienced since 2010.

Optimism needed

Business founders and owners are necessarily optimists. They wouldn’t have started what they did if they didn’t believe things would get better! But even optimists struggle when a disaster like the pandemic is followed by a chain of events like those outlined above; something not experienced in Western Europe in over 80 years.

The ability to bounce back and move forward evaporates when people freeze up and freak out—and when they lose trust and faith in one another, in leaders, and in rules, laws, and informal social agreements.

Business leaders know they have to find a way to be resilient; to bounce back. In my experience many will succeed because they know they have no choice. But it can be lonely and stressful when it feels like some much depends on you.

Peer networks & Advisers

That’s why peer networks and supports available through Local Enterprise Offices, Chamber of Commerce, etc. can be a great help. They provide opportunities to talk to others with similar experiences or a third party who can provide a different, more removed, but relevant perspective.

Similarly, professional advisers – legal, financial, HR, etc. – can be useful sounding boards but they may have a cost to your business.

Journey from Fear to Hope

A McKinsey paper* authored by two Stanford University professors in 2020 identified three key traits required of leaders tackling the impact of COVID on their businesses. The lessons are still valid today even though our challenges have changed, and grown.

  • Personal accountability for making the tough decisions needed speedily with incomplete data. Good leaders focus on what they know now and can still do to protect people and performance.
  • Skilled leaders demonstrate they care by expressing compassion for the harm and emotional distress inflicted by the crisis at hand and the actions they and their organisation take in response. They acknowledge that the news is bad, and that it may get worse before it gets better. And they are physically and emotionally present.
  • Sustaining hope for the business and for colleagues. The ability of so many businesses to keep operating and of others to re-open – several times – provides some predictability for staff at least concerning their incomes. Anxiety can be reduced by setting out plans and a vision for what 2023 will look like in a number of scenarios.

Leaders who do these things well create passageways that help people travel from a room called fear to a room called hope. Skilled leaders also sustain that hope by building cultures that are flexible, that celebrate individuality, and that enable employees to be their best selves at work.


*’From a room called fear to a room called hope’ by Hayagreeva Rao & Robert Sutton, McKinsey Quarterly

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