Leading in a Crisis with Resolve *and* Kindness

The corona virus crisis is showing us what leadership can look like and women the world over are rocking it.  Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand has been giving us a master class.  

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Reading Time: 2.5 minutes (although if you click on the links, you might get a coffee and
settle in for a “wee while.”)

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I am gobsmacked by Jacinda Ardern.  Friends are starting to roll their eyes when I mention her name and mouth “fan-girl.” to each other when they think I’m not looking. (At least I think that’s what their doing.  It can be hard to tell on Zoom.)   Ardern just keeps getting it right and – then, more right that she did before.  Here are the lessons in her masterclass:

FIRST, PROVIDE A FRAMEWORK SO WE CAN MAKE SENSE OF WHAT IS HAPPENING

On March 21, 2020, Ardern announced a four-level alert system and told New Zealanders that they were currently in Level Two of that system.  This may be the most brilliant thing she’s done.  The alert system gives government and citizens a framework within which to understand the new and baffling reality while making transparent the approach government is taking.

The genius of giving people a common way to make sense of something so changeable is the source of my gob-smackedness.  It is instantly grounding, provides a common language, and helps restore a sense of agency and control.  We may not know much else, but we have a common way to think about it,  talk about it, and understand our leader’s approach to it.  This is instantly calming.  Ardern and her government created the alert level system because it was needed.  She didn’t wait until she had it right according to science or popular opinion.  She  and her government made it up based on what they knew then.  I don’t know about New Zealanders, but it has definitely helped me.

SECOND, PUT IT ALL ON THE TABLE, NO HOLDING BACK

In her March 23, 2020 address – a mere two days after announcing the four-level alert system – Ardern changed the lives of New Zealanders in a 14-minute speech.  In under 14 minutes, she elegantly communicated on all three levels of the transition curve: She gave facts that blasted through denial, offered support and acknowledgement, and inspired collective action for a common cause.   In under 14 minutes, she also hit all three aspects of motivational speech:  She wore her intentions on her sleeve, gave clear, unsparing direction about the actions she wanted taken, and made meaning of and acknowledged the difficulty of the sacrifice she was asking.  She did all three of these over and over, repeatedly braiding these three strands together.

What she didn’t do is just as important:  She didn’t infantalize anyone:  She never once expressed doubt about their ability to do this difficult thing.  She did not talk down to anyone, in fact she included herself in everything she laid out.  She did not hide difficult information, rather she shared the exact information she’d used to make her decision.

THIRD, MATCH YOUR BEHAVIOR TO YOUR WORDS

When your actions don’t match your words, it’s your words that are ignored.  In order for what you say to be heard and absorbed, your behavior must be absolutely, effortlessly congruent with them, even when no one is watching.  I love Ardern’s open, transparent face.  She is always genuine, present.  For her, the words and the music go together. She displays the full range of normal human emotions. I find this so refreshing.

The first two pictures above are Ardern moments before announced the upcoming self-isolation of New Zealand.  The third picture is her Facebook Live two days later when the isolation had started, checking in with people after she’d put her toddler to bed.  And that’s not all:  She gave a press conference just for children because she knew they were anxious.  She and her cabnite took a 20% paycut.  She fiercely defended the elderly, letting her fury show, when others suggested they should left to die.  She is not staged, fake, pretending, nor is she needy, blustering or combative.

FOURTH, BE KIND

In her March 23rd speech, Ardern ended by asking people to be kind to one another even though they were frightened.  She gave suggestions like checking on neighbors, setting up phone trees to stay in touch and the like.  She’d clearly thought about how self-isolation would feel and come up with practical suggestions.

It is possible to lead with resolve and kindness.  In a capable leader’s hands, they strengthen one other.  There are many, many world leaders in addition to Ardern who are demonstrating this, all of them women.

HOW DID IT WORK OUT?

On Monday, April 20, 2020, Ardern announced that New Zealand would move to Level 3 on at midnight on April 27th.  She said that Google data showed that compliance with the restrictions had been high.

“NZ has done what few countries had managed to do and crush Covid-19.  The results of the lockdown “had all been achieved as a result of New Zealanders,”  Ardern said.

“We have a transmission rate of 0.48 per cent – one of the lowest in the world.  We have broken the chain (of community transmission),” she said.  “New Zealanders have proven themselves and they’ve done so in an incredible way.”

Ardern gave others credit for the results rather than take it for herself or her government.

(Master) Class dismissed.

Hold on tight! Transition Curve Ahead

 

Every change sets off a transition process.  This is why you’re having all these feelings during this unprecedented time in history.  Although our understanding about this new corona virus is changing daily, the way we respond to change – the transition process – is well-understood,  predictable, and you’ve been through it before.  You know how.  You’ve got this. And you will not always feel this nutso.

 Reading Time:  4.5 minutes

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Change or Transition?

© 2020 Liz Williams

In his book Transitions, psychologist William Bridges separates change – an event in time – from transition, which is the psycho-emotional process of adjusting to a change.  Every change triggers the transition process with its predictable and sometimes tempestuous trajectory.

Take getting married, for example.  You look forward to your life as a spouse, a part of a unit, and that distracts from the fact that things you loved about your single life are coming to an end.  You no longer make decisions alone.  You are not as free to do what you want when you want to do it.  There are conversations, negotiations, creative solutions.

==> Every change initiates a trip through the Transition Curve

If changes we look forward to trigger the transition process, what about those we don’t choose?  Like not being able to shake hands, or showing your love by staying six feet away?  Even small changes like these can put as into transition:  I think of myself as warm, friendly person and I’m acting like a hermit.  It’s confusing and awkward.  Understanding what to expect is a big help in navigating your way through the transition curve.

The Transition Curve

ENDING or, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

The transition process starts the moment you realize something has ended.  Denial is our instant response to this realization.  “Sure, we’re not in Kansas, but everything else is the same, right?  I mean, people still look like me and speak my language and….who are all those tiny people and why are they singing and…there’s a wizard?  Oh, c’mon.” Like Dorothy on the yellow brick road, your denial is peeled away, step-by-step, encounter by encounter.

As your denial ebbs, you become aware that you don’t know how to be anymore – you don’t know how to feel like yourself.  You don’t feel competent in the new reality, because you aren’t – it’s too new.  Although we don’t realize it, we get much of our sense of self from the way others respond to us.  When that response changes, it’s confusing and disorienting.  What used to work doesn’t anymore.   We can become confused about how we fit in to the new picture.  We can question our value.  Denial protects us from this questioning until we are ready to take it on.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Facts, information and clear boundaries are what you need to get past your denial and through the Ending phase of transition.  If you are going to go through the discomfort of shifting the way you are in the world, there better be a good reason.

Letting go of denial can be as simple as accepting you’re going to be late to work because you keep getting off at the wrong exit so you’d better set your alarm earlier. It can be as complicated as the identity reset you’ll need to become a husband, wife, or parent. It can be the moment you realize that your clients or employees will need something different from you, something you might not know how to provide.

When you’re ready to accept that your sense of certainty has come to an end, and your former way of being in the world may not be a fit, you’ve entered the next phase of this normal, predictable process of transition.

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

The neutral zone is like putting the transmission of your car in neutral – no matter how much hard you pump that gas pedal, you’re going nowhere.  The neutral zone is all about not knowing, which is unpleasant for most of us.  Being confronted with what we don’t know can be nerve-wracking.  We’ll do anything to get back in gear, to feel like ourselves again.  We’ll jump back into denial, deciding to simply do what we’ve always done, consequences be damned.  Or we’ll will ourselves into the future, deciding that we know exactly what to do.  No matter which of these you try, you will end up back in the rich soup of the neutral zone, unable to mover forward and not yet ready to.  But you are very busy adjusting to a new reality.  It takes the time it takes.

 

Your job is to simply to stay here in the zone of the unknown, getting all the support you need.  Maybe there is a routine or practice you find nurturing and maybe you want the support of others.  It’s OK to slow down, to feel a little lost and to reach out. It’s OK to get cranky.  It’s OK to enjoy the downtime too.  It’s normal to swing between these two.  Eventually, you may start to feel anxious about not knowing when the neutral zone ends. You may start wondering why other people are not reacting like you are.  You may think, “what is wrong with me?”

Absolutely nothing.

Do what you can.  Swing over to denial.  Try something new.  Take risks. Fail.  Try again.  It’s OK.

You are OK.  This won’t last forever. How can I help?

These are the kinds of things you need to hear in the neutral zone – kind, supportive murmurings, a warm smile, a friendly gesture, all taking the pressure off.  The neutral zone is like someone dumping a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor, then hiding the picture of what it should look like after kicking a few of the pieces under the couch.  The time for facts is over – you need support.

BEGINNING

One day you’ll wake up and that nagging pain in your back will be gone.  Your optimism and focus are back, and you have more energy. You may feel calmer, more grounded, accepting.  You’ll find yourself humming as you get ready for the day, thinking how you’re looking forward to familiar routines or the adventure of trying something brand new.  You will once again feel like yourself.  And you’ll think, “This is great!    Can I keep it?”  Yes, you can.  It’s yours, or more accurately, it’s you.

Inspire me!

You are ready for inspiring talks fresh starts.  You’ve figured it out and gotten your mojo back.  Will you revisit the neutral zone?  Maybe.  While models like this one are linear, life isn’t.   It turns and swoops and curves back on itself before jumping ahead or pausing.  But you’ll be visiting those other phases, not living there.

What about my clients, employees, friends, family?

Everybody moves through a transition at their own pace.  Understanding where someone is helps you offer them what they need rather than offering them what you need.  For example, if you are struggling with the ending, you may share your denial or hammer others with facts.  If you are in the neutral zone needing support, you may offer support to others who are still in denial.  If you are all the way through the curve and offer inspiration when others need facts or support, you may sound like you’ve lost your mind.  This tendency, though natural,  is not helpful.

Listen, then meet others where they are

Just knowing about this transition curve will improve your communication and effectiveness 100-fold.  Listen to your clients, colleagues and employees.   Where might they be in the transition process?  Offer facts, support or inspiration, depending where they are, not where you need them to be.  It’s OK to be where you are too, and not heroically trying to inspire others when you are freaking out.   Consider telling your story, admitting what you don’t know and sharing your humanity with people.  Pause.  Wait for ideas about what to say or do to come.  They’ve never failed you before and they won’t now.  It just may take a minute longer.

How to change someone else

Reading Time:  45 seconds

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There’s a elegant, simple way to do this and there’s the other way. The other way is to employ a variety of passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive techniques to get others to behave differently. Not only is this excruciating for everyone involved, it doesn’t work. It does give us a way to occupy our days, and something to complain about in the break room. Perhaps this explains its timeless appeal.

Or, you could use the approach that drops you right into the slipstream: Change your behavior.

Oh, no, no, you say – I’m right and they are wrong, wrong, wrong. They need to change, not me. I deserve better.

Exactly. I’m not arguing with you. I’m telling you how.

But Liz, they are the ones who need to change. I’m not changing for them – why should I? It’s just not possible – I can’t do it, it’s not who I am. Besides, it’s so hard.

And yet you expect them to change. You aren’t willing or able to change, but you expect them to?

A mother brought her overweight son to Ghandi so he could tell the son to stop eating sweets. Ghandi said “Come back next week.” When they returned, Ghandi told the son to stop eating sweets. When the mother asked about the intervening week, Ghandi said “I had to see if I could do it before I could ask someone else to.”

Leadership is going first.

Be a leader.  Go first.

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