2020 Hindsight Series: Stay Connected
One of the most profound lockdown leadership lessons I've learned, with 2020 hindsight, is the importance of staying connected. I've always known this to be true from a leadership perspective. The aloof leader, locked behind doors, not connecting and not engaging, is rarely effective. 20 years as a CEO of six different companies taught me the power and importance of connection. Yet this year it has been profoundly highlighted to me, and the leaders that I serve.
So, what do I mean by connection?
I’ll leave that to the venerable Brené Brown, who said “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” That is a very high bar for any commercial environment, and unfortunately not even close in most. But I think we should all be on that journey as leaders, albeit that Brown’s definition is the ideal.
If we don't connect with those around us, we're less effective as a team. Often, we can be left behind by more connected competitors. One thing that I have noticed in companies of low connection is the paralysis of stakeholders. If we're not connected as a leader, people are often reluctant to engage and make decisions, leading to paralysis. This is often seen in complex environments where there is misalignment, due to a lack of clarity through minimal communication.
But, if we do stay connected as leaders, we gain alignment, build trust and sustainable productive relationships. These things culminate in higher productivity. So, whether we think being connected is altruistic or not, productivity results.
The great reformer and member of the social reformer Clapham Sect, William Wilberforce, is known for his part in ridding England and ultimately the larger British Empire, of the scourge of slavery. Wilberforce was very good friends with William Pitt the Prime Minister of the time. He approached Pitt in order to get his proposed anti-slavery legislation tabled. Pitt said to him “We are at war with France I've no time for your distractions,” or words to that effect. Wilberforce was of course bitterly disappointed, but purely out of a respect for his relationship with Pitt, he held his tongue, even with such an important topic dear to his heart, as abolition. Three years later Pitt approached Wilberforce and said OK tell me what we should do about slavery. The rest, as they say, is history. Wilberforce counted relationship above cause. He wanted to stay connected rather than push his point. Given the somewhat polarised nature of political and social issues in the past 12 months, and the vitriol with which those positions have been stated, I think there's some important lessons to be learned here.
A strong connection between a CEO and their team is critical for any kind of constructive progress. Remaining connected, building relationship, understanding each individual in your team, and having clear constructive consistent dialogue, were all highlighted in the time of crisis we've experienced. Leaders who were not connected and remained disconnected, have really struggled to be effective in such a dynamic environment. The trouble with communication, as they say, is the illusion that it's taken place. Plus, in the absence of good communication people will always assume the worst, so we might as well be transparent and stay connected. My 2020 hindsight leadership lesson from lockdown is, “if we stay connected, we can move faster and go further.”