CEO Insider

The question you may ask yourself is: what does it take?

Hortense le Gentil

In this crisis, leaders are faced with an unprecedented set of simultaneous challenges. They have had and are having to deal with human, health management, operational, financial, strategic challenges, as well as sometimes public policy and public opinion challenges, for which there is no playbook and there has been no training.

As a result, they need to exhibit a broad spectrum of leadership qualities: they need to be able to demonstrate empathy; their communication needs to be transparent and authentic to generate trust; they need to be able to demonstrate vulnerability (being OK to share that there are things they do not know); to be agile, fact-based problem solvers, to come up with completely novel solutions, to be able to make some tough, sometimes bold decisions, etc., etc., etc.

That is a job for a Superhero, right? Not! “Au contraire”! The know-it-all, all powerful leader is ill-equipped to deal with these challenges and exhibit these leadership qualities. What has emerged in this crisis is the very human leader who leads with purpose, integrity, and humanity, combined of course with rigorous decision making. And there are many very inspiring examples of such leadership behaviors.

The question you may ask yourself is: what does it take? What does it take to be able to lead in such a manner and be able to do this, not over a couple of weeks, but over an extended period of time.

Based on my experience working with great leaders in times of crisis, I believe that there are six critical ingredients necessary to emerge as an authentic and effective leader in this unprecedented time.

If you cannot go outside, go inside! “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first!”. These are the clear instructions of the flight attendants on every flight, telling you what to do if the cabin gets depressurized. You need to do this before you can take care of others. What is true on a flight is true now. What does it mean concretely for leaders? It means taking the time to remind yourself of – or think through – the answers to some basic questions:

  • What are your key values? What is your purpose in life? What drives you?
  • What kind of a leader do you want to be in this crisis?
  • How do you want to be remembered as a leader two years from now?

Taking care of yourself is not the typical first reaction of leaders. They will tend to want to throw themselves into action. Yet, it is crucial to hit the pause button if you want to go into action with all your strengths. The good news is that it does not require much time. On March 12, as the crisis was swinging into full force, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company had a regularly scheduled meeting with his coach. He shared how destabilized he was by the events that were unfolding: everything was changing so quickly, throwing so many things in the air. Taking the time to speak with his coach helped him realize that even though everything outside was changing, who he was had not changed, his values, his drivers, his purpose were still the same, he was still the same. His job was simply to deploy his energy in pursuit of his purpose, just in a different context.

Use all your “body parts”.

Of course, you will need to use your left brain, the part associated with linear and analytical thinking. This is what most leaders have been trained to do. And, as Albert Einstein said, your left brain is a “faithful servant”. But, this is not going to be enough, if you want to deal effectively with the range of challenges you are faced with. You will need to make sure to use your other gifts, including your right brain, the part of your brain associated with creative thinking and emotions (which Albert Einstein describes as a “sacred gift”), as well as your heart, your soul, and your guts.

Ohio Health Department‘s Dr Amy Acton is a brilliant example of an inspiring and effective leader using all her “body parts”. She convinced people to stay at home by inspiring not ordering. How? She spoke with her heart, with vulnerability – “Every day I go through stages of grief, I go through denial, I go through a little anger”- with her guts and brutal honesty -“We are not going back to 6 months ago”, with her soul and her emotions – “People at home, you are moving mountains, you are saving lives, I feel emotional saying it”.

Establish and follow a daily routine. You need to find what will be right for you. But, in my experience, it may start with a morning meditation, physical exercise, an evening “rendez-vous” with yourself, and some appropriate refueling during the day.

Of particular value is the examination of the day at the end of it, the reflection on what happened, and the discipline to go over a handful of daily questions tied to the priorities you have laid out for yourself: did I do my best to listen and demonstrate empathy? Did I do my best to check in with the most vulnerable members of the organization? Did I do my best to communicate with my team with transparency, both what we know and what do not know? Did I do my best to listen to expert advice? Did I do my best to ask for help?

Note that this is not about controlling what is probably not controllable. This is about doing your best, being aware, demanding but also kind to yourself. There is always tomorrow.

Another valuable practice is to find a way to refuel during the day, taking the time to breath, be aware, recharge. This may be by listening to music while sitting by the window for 20 minutes, drinking a cup of coffee by yourself, or taking a power nap. Everyone needs “cerebral downtime”.

These practices will ensure you are able navigate what are treacherous waters effectively, while staying the course.

Do not be afraid to deal with your emotions.

I can hear you thinking: “Men don’t cry”!  And because men still represent the vast majority of the CEO’s positions, talking about emotions is not the easiest part!

But this crisis is not just rational. You will have to deal with pain and suffering. People around you will become ill, some will die under your watch. You may have to make incredibly difficult decisions, such as furloughing the majority of your employees. Hiding or burying your emotions will not be a good idea. Doing so, keeping them inside is likely to exhaust you and lead to a burnout. It will also hinder your ability to lead in a human, empathetic, and authentic fashion, as the repression of your emotions will prevent from deeply and genuinely connecting with others around you.

This means taking the time to be aware of your emotions, understanding what they are telling you, dealing with the grief you are experiencing, letting your feelings come out, getting to acceptance, and eventually finding meaning in the outcome. Take John, one of my CEO clients. He was feeling tired and sad at the end of a specially difficult week. He had had to announce the furloughing of several hundred employees, one of their major clients had canceled all future orders, and to top it all, he had also had a difficult meeting with his board. Who wouldn’t feel tired after that? Sharing his emotions and frustrations simply and authentically during our weekly coaching session helped him put words on his feelings, identify the source of his emotions, and vent. This helped him feel better, get some energy back. Dealing with his emotions, rather than ignoring or burying them, helped him move forward more positively.

Ensure you have an effective support structure. Traveling alone on such a journey is hard, it is in fact inhuman. As a leader, you need to make sure you have a support structure in place around you, be it a spouse, a partner, a coach, a mentor, a spiritual director, a group of close friends, or a personal board of directors, that you can go to, share your thoughts with, use as a sounding board or ask for advice.

We need to be and to feel supported. This explains for example the huge popularity of webinars bringing together similarly situated leaders who can gain from listening to the experience of other leaders.

Pace yourself. This is not a sprint. This will be more like a marathon. And you will not always know where you are on the journey and what to expect next. The good news is that you do not need to solve everything at the same time. You should think about the journey in phases – for some companies, this may be the shelter-in-place phase, the reopening phase, and the preparation of the post-Covid 19 phase. This makes it easier to allocate issues across these phases and to recognize – and if appropriate – celebrate milestones along the way.

Leading effectively during this time of crisis does not require being some kind of superhero. It requires connecting with yourself and unleashing your true potential as an imperfect, vulnerable, but real, incredibly talented human being. It requires being aligned with who you are and connecting with others to form an “alignment of alignments”.


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Hortense le Gentil
Hortense le Gentil is an Executive Leadership Coach who works with decision-makers in the business world, including many C-suite executives from Fortune 500 companies, supporting them in their development and leadership by working with them on the alignment between their personal values and their professional activities. Prior to coaching full time, le Gentil spent over 30 years in business in various industries, working for leading multinational companies in the areas of media consulting, marketing, and advertising. She then founded and spent 10 years as CEO of an entrepreneurial start-up (in metals recycling). Hortense is part of the MG100 Coaches, Marshall Goldsmith’s Pay It Forward project, and is a certified Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered™ Coach. She has been selected to receive a Thinkers 50 coaching award for excellence in her field. She is the author of Aligned: Connecting Your True Self with the Leader You're Meant to Be. Hortense le Gentil is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.