This article originally appeared on Forbes.
Particularly when they’re under pressure, leaders must be willing to face two important problems: connecting with their true selves, and listening deeply to their stakeholders, especially their employees, according to Hortense le Gentil, executive leadership coach and author of Aligned: Connecting Your True Self with the Leader You’re Meant to Be. Le Gentil describes alignment as “the congruence of who you are, what you feel, and what you love on a deep and fundamental level with what you do, what you say, what you envision, and where you are going. She encourages leaders to express their authentic selves and communicate their vision clearly —in service both to inspiring employees and generating results. Here are five examples of how alignment in action will help leaders deal with turbulent times.
Clarify and communicate who you want to be. Le Gentil asks how you want to be remembered 10 years from now, and recommended that leaders check in with themselves every day to verify their values, direction and the things that give them energy. People who understand their own values are more likely to have the courage to follow through on their beliefs and take necessary action rather than being so fearful of disapproval that they focus on hiding or shielding themselves.
Even deep self-knowledge is not enough, however, because “If you don’t explain, nobody is going to understand. What is true for you is not [necessarily] true for others.” It’s always the leader’s responsibility to hold out hope for the possibility of a brighter future, but leaders cannot assume that team members will automatically understand their point of view. Le Gentil stressed the importance of simple, concrete messages tailored to meet employees’ needs “so team members can focus on the most crucial problems.”
Work to understand your team. Leaders who put in the time to have personal contact with employees and customers have the best visceral understanding of who the people are and what their problems are. This is true even when this connection time needs to be remote. When people are disrupted by external events, as they are today, le Gentil recommends going back to employees to learn how best the organization can serve them, whether that means providing extra support to its working parents or demonstrating care for Black employees. Leaders may need to educate themselves, whether by learning the science, as in the case of Covid-19, or the history of racial injustice. She cautions that “It’s not effective to overcommit by making promises that you can’t keep or saying things that are not true – that’s not going to work,” but encourages asking directly about team members’ circumstances.
At the same time, she hopes leaders will ask explicitly for feedback to understand what team members need and to listen courageously and non-defensively to hear their views about the faults of the past. If leaders let employees know that they’re working to listen and understand, and after interactions, check “Did I do a better job of listening?” team members will be more engaged, and are also more likely to forgive leaders even when they are not yet excellent listeners.
Take actions that match up with your values. If you are an aligned leader, even “in a new and frightening situation,” le Gentil emphasizes that “if you speak from the heart it will be all right.” She finds hope in the combination of the Covid-19 crisis and the social justice crisis because it creates an obvious opportunity to reset and change. She offered the example of a CEO who held the safety of his people as a very strong value. Given his understanding of and alignment with shareholders, the board, customers and employees, it was an easy decision for him to close down the business to protect both customer and employee health from the impact of Covid-19 despite the temporary damage to the business. She referred to this as an “alignment of alignments:” Because the leader had already done the work to build strong relationships and connections with all critical stakeholders and learned about their values, it was possible for him to take potentially painful actions with the full expectation that everyone would be united.
Create safety for team members. Employees need to be able to be themselves at work, and to be accepted for who they are. It’s truly difficult for team members to feel a sense of belonging when they have to operate as if they are an artificial construction at work and can be their true selves only at home. People who don’t feel comfortable to share their stories with their co-workers will not be as well understood by those co-workers. This disconnect can lead to reduced innovation and productivity, “even to the point of threatening [the organization’s] survival.” Le Gentil explains that when there is safety for team membersto tell their individual stories, whether it is the manager who suffers from depression or the Black executive who shares her daily worries about her teenage son, the potential exists to create the “alignment of alignments” and thereby to enhance focus, direction, and creativity.
Integrate other voices as a source for your own feedback. As le Gentil says, “You’re not going to find any solution just by yourself. It’s only together that you can do great things!” She refers to the command-and control style of leadership as “so last century,” and stresses that when leaders think they have all the answers, “The answers will always be the same.” Leaders who try to control employees too tightly never have time to work on the big picture and can’t hold a vision for the organization.
In challenging times, it can be extremely difficult for leaders to maintain their vision of the business and a united front with employees, rather than being buffeted about by the events of the day. But by emphasizing self-knowledge and a deep understanding of their team members, leaders can find the mutual strength and courage to keep moving forward.
Onward and upward —