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What We've Learned About Compassionate Leadership During a Crisis

One year ago, world-wide chatter began to surface that a new virus would potentially impact many of our daily lives; such scenarios had been considered before, but many were unprepared for the reality of COVID-19. It was unfamiliar territory for everyone, but one group faced a unique challenge – Business Leaders. According to Masterclass, a business leader is “someone who motivates employees in order to achieve a common goal, and the company’s success often rests in the hands of its leaders. They are responsible for goal setting, team member motivation, company morale, and embodying the company spirit and culture”. However, successful leadership has been redefined since the start of COVID-19 and this “new normal”. A crisis of this scale has left many fearful that disruption—personal, financial, societal—is going to be a way of life for some time.

When the path ahead is unclear, individuals turn to their leaders to help them achieve certainty and hope for a safer, healthier future. They want someone with a positive vision, who, according to McKinsey & Company, exhibits optimism and is confident about confronting the problems, the uncomfortable truths, and admits what they don’t know. Eric Simon, Vice President of Operations at SHYFT, said with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, “This reality is new for everyone. Our leadership team was forced to acknowledge that we didn’t have readily available answers to prepare our team for the months ahead. Sharing this with our team in regularly recurring meetings and being transparent with them about our need to adapt our business plans, has positioned us to be stronger as we move into the future.”

The Center for Creative Leadership states that during a crisis, most business leaders are forced to think and behave in ways that feel unfamiliar to them. Whether it’s a technological, financial, natural, or most recently, a COVID-19 health crisis — such dilemmas require that leaders respond and adapt as new evidence and recommendations present themselves. In the days of COVID-19, we’ve learned that a business-as-usual leadership mindset will not fly as a leadership strategy. Leaders must exhibit compassion.

What does compassionate leadership look like?

Four words – Awareness, Vulnerability, Empathy & Kindness

  • Awareness – When a crisis like COVID-19 hits, leaders initially try to stabilize the risk by setting up a crisis-response infrastructure and elevating the right leaders into vital roles. At the same time, leaders must also tune in to themselves and their organization. Once the initial shock of the crisis has been grasped, it’s crucial to accept and acknowledge the reflex tendencies that unfold within us and others, and to care for them. Initially, a leader may feel the need to take control over the situation, but that risks shutting off awareness of one’s own and others’ feelings and emotional needs. A first step is to effectively tune inward and create time and space for self-connection and self-awareness. Deep breathing, allowing yourself to feel emotions, and practicing gratitude are ways you can actively exercise awareness.

  • Vulnerability – The next step is to actually open yourself up to others. Sharing your emotions takes vulnerability and openness. During a crisis, all leaders experience anxiety, and emotional obstructions and they may find it helpful to talk to others about their experiences, such as other leaders, mentors, a close confidant, or a loved one. By doing so, a leader can help to lay the foundation for cultivating realism, trust, and compassionate leadership as the leader turns outward to connect with the larger organization. Leaders can set the tone for organizational healing by expressing vulnerability and sharing personal fears, concerns, and uncertainties. When leaders express openness, employees will have space to share their experiences also. That kind of understanding will make it easier to establish this level of openness in day-to-day interactions. Brandon Foldes, Founding Partner and Chief Executive Officer at SHYFT, oftentimes reminds team members of his “open door policy”, inviting any and all team members to meet with him to share an entrepreneurial idea that they have for the company, or to just schedule a time to talk about the stresses in their work or personal lives. By providing a safe workplace for employees and other stakeholders to express emotions, it can allow individuals to move past pain, stress, and anxiety, and refocus on their work and the organization’s mission.

  • Empathy – After a leader has become aware of their emotions and expressed them with a trusted source, the next step is to continue to turn outward to connect with the team members of your organization. By tuning into yourself, you’ve allowed for better listening skills, alleviation of team members' anxieties, and have given them a path to move forward. Awareness of what others are feeling, and showing empathy, during a crisis has been shown to lower the stress of team members, according to McKinsey & Company, while also improving team goal achievement and productivity. Many times, employees mirror the behaviors of their leaders, making them well-positioned to serve as a role model for empathy and caring for other people’s needs. Displaying an interest in employees’ feelings – or in other words, displaying empathy – is key, especially if such acts are visible and leaders filter them down through the organization. Ellen Broich, Vice President of Finance at SHYFT reminds our leadership team and all associates to take time to check in on individuals and their families, and to “express gratitude either with words or small tokens of appreciation, and to publicly recognize compassionate acts taken by team members.”

  • Kindness – Last and certainly not least, leaders must exhibit kindness during a crisis. A lot of times people associate kindness with weakness, especially when it comes to leadership. However, this is certainly not the case in current times. Kind leadership can empower employees to lead with positivity, purpose, and open-mindedness. As we continue to grapple with these unpredictable times, we’ve learned the skills of a kind leader are even more relevant – to openly show our human side, listening to and acting with others’ needs in mind, meeting people where they are, and having the courage to adapt to situations that no one has been prepared for. Steve Reynolds, Founding Partner and Chief Administrative Officer at SHYFT recently disclosed that “If I have learned anything in my career, it is that I may never know what significant challenges my fellow team members may be up against. I don’t always know who or what the issue is, but I know that they all deserve the kindest ‘me’ that I can be.”

Throughout a crisis like COVID-19, many people share the same grief, anxieties, and concerns. At SHYFT Collective, we’ve discovered that by demonstrating compassion and coming together as one, leaders have the opportunity to encourage a culture filled with mutual acceptance, warmth, and optimism. Business leaders ought to try to refocus individuals’ attention away from trauma and toward a better future for themselves and for their organization. Pairing compassion with confidence during the “new normal” is critical to help people shift from states of stress to collaboration to build the desired future. Leaders are uniquely positioned to ignite hope and create the image of a future organization people are excited to be a part of. SHYFT Founding Partner and Chief Visionary Officer at SHYFT, Zane Muntz, recently shared that “A global pandemic requires thinking outside the box and creative business solutions you may not have previously considered. Finding fun, exciting, and challenging projects for our team members to work on is one of my key objectives. If that endeavor is successful, we build a culture where team members grow their careers through engagement, learning, and ideally while having fun.”

A worldwide pandemic can really test the limits of leaders. The leadership team at SHYFT can testify to this fact. It has caused them to think differently and ask: “How can we be more compassionate leaders for our employees during this time of instability?” Our leadership team has spent time introspectively and as a group, becoming more aware of their own feelings and vulnerabilities and expressing them outwards to the rest of the team in the form of empathy and kindness, in an effort to build resilience and position SHYFT Collective to positively reimagine a better future.

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