Being a Human Leader


In her speech and interaction with Kami Bond, Kirstin Ferguson talks about the complexity of being a leader through this crisis, and the real need to draw on emotional intelligence.

Leading through a crisis is something that you cannot know how to do until you are in the middle of it. This crisis is also unique in comparison to other crises because there is no real end in sight. It is completely out of our control how to bring this crisis to an end, and despite it being a shared experience, we are all experiencing it very differently. Some leaders may be enjoying the break from normal day-to-day life, whereas, for others, this is a life and death moment. They may have lost jobs, they may have COVID themselves, or they may have lost family members to COVID. So, there is a lot more complexity in being a leader through this crisis, and there is a real need to draw on those emotional intelligence skills, show empathy, and understand what is going on in the lives of those that we are leading. 

Each one of us is a leader. Whether we are leading our family, community, a business, or our country, we all lead others in different ways. It is incredibly important to be able to adapt one’s leadership style. All of us as leaders are setting our legacy every single day because how we act during this crisis is really what we are going to be remembered for. There are three leaders whose leadership during this crisis stands out, whose leadership skills we can draw on.

The first is Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International. At the beginning of the crisis, he gave a five-minute speech to all of his Marriott staff around the world. It was an incredibly candid, humble speech where he is vulnerable and emotional, but he balances that with a real decisive path forward. He gives the people he is leading a real sense of reassurance that they are going to see this crisis through. Being able to be a resolute and courageous leader, and combining that with extreme levels of transparency is particularly important right now with emotional intelligence, and is a perfect example of the Stockdale paradox. 

The term “Stockdale paradox” was coined by Jim Collins after Admiral Jim Stockdale’s famous words about how you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end ¾­­which you cannot afford to lose¾ with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. Admiral Jim Stockdale was the most senior American military officer who was a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. Arne Sorenson somehow balanced these two competing notions of retaining faith that you will prevail in the end and at the same time confronting the brutal facts of your situation, whatever it might be. It is not easy, but it is incredibly important to earn the trust of people who are following us.

Whether we are leading our family, community, a business, or our country, we all lead others in different ways.

The second leader is Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the NBA. The choice to suspend the NBA season was made very early, even before COVID had been known to enter the US. Adam Silver made that decision with little information in hand. He wouldn’t have known what was going to happen in the US and he would have had a number of stakeholders counseling him against making such a radical financial decision without all of the information, but he showed real courage in making a decision without waiting to see what happened. It turned out to be a good decision.

 The third person is Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. She shows this incredible adaptability in her leadership. She strongly and stridently makes decisions for the safety of New Zealand. New Zealand was one of the first to go into lockdown. It had one of the strictest lockdowns, but then she is also prepared to flip that and be incredibly authentic. A recent example was a Facebook Live session she did sitting on her couch in her sweatpants, taking questions from the public after having just put her toddler to bed. It shows her confidence and her ability to adapt her leadership style without any loss of respect. She earns that authenticity, transparency, and respect, which is an important lesson for leaders during this crisis.

We can find five opportunities to improve our leadership style from the examples of these three leaders. The first one is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. It is the ability to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The pandemic has affected everyone in very different ways, so it is more important than ever for leaders to understand what the people they are leading are going through, before jumping to conclusions about their performance and how they are adapting. There are many different issues, whether it is their partner losing a job, homeschooling children, or some other exigency, and showing empathy right now is critical for leaders.

The second is around self-awareness. It is about the ability to practice becoming highly self-aware of the impact that you are having on those around you. It is also an essential ingredient to be able to show empathy. Whether it is about leading a family, community, or the country, every single leader has felt anxious, and scared and overwhelmed by this crisis. No one has been prepared to be able to lead through something like this before, but a self-aware leader is able to assess how they are feeling and are able to manage it as best they can without creating further anxiety for the people they are leading, whether through responding by being frustrated or angry or in despair. Self-aware leaders are also able to assess whether the way they are communicating with their people is working or not. A self-aware leader can gauge what is appropriate and when, is able to put ego to the side and ask people what is important to them.

We are naturally inclined to make decisions after we gather all the data and weigh up the risks, yet this crisis and a lot of crises show that you cannot wait for all the information.

The third is around this concept of being able to be decisive in the face of uncertainty. We are naturally inclined to make decisions after we gather all the data and weigh up the risks, yet this crisis and a lot of crises show that you cannot wait for all the information. Waiting for proof of something is guaranteed to lead to failure. It is going to be too slow. Some of the best leaders like Adam Silver have already made decisions confidently, quickly, and courageously, and they have done it with empathy, self-awareness, and transparency. Importantly, those leaders can say that they made the best decision at the time but they can also reassess and change direction if they need to. Leaders need to be able to assess the pace of decision-making and be able to adjust their direction as needed because we simply do not know all the answers.

The fourth opportunity is being prepared to accept failure. We need to put ego to the side, as difficult as that might be, accept that we do not have all the answers and that we are going to make mistakes. We might even make quite a few mistakes, but the pandemic has given a wonderful opportunity in some ways, that none of us know all of the answers. We have no idea how the crisis will unfold, so we need to be able to make decisions and accept that the choices made may or may not work. Once leaders realize that a choice is not working, they should be able to change course but also be prepared to seek advice, to admit they don’t know and understand that this is the way that we need to lead through this particular environment.

The fifth point is being able to adapt one’s leadership style, and it is something demonstrated well by Jacinda Ardern. This crisis has taken us inside the homes of our leaders. We are truly bringing our whole selves to work and that is just the way we now operate. Leaders should not be afraid of it, because it does not mean we lose sight of the strength or our effectiveness as a leader. Instead, being able to adapt and be authentic as a leader is going to build trust and respect for the leaders.

It is not easy to make quick decisions with little information while also trying to be vulnerable and reassuring the people we lead. This is where emotional intelligence becomes important. One can have all the intellect in the world, but none of that means anything if they do not know how to connect with people. Having the emotional intelligence to be able to bring people together and inspire them when they are feeling anxious, to embrace their ideas when you might not be sure if they are the right ones, and being able to put ego to the side are all difficult things, but an emotionally intelligent leader can adapt their style to the situation. This is why emotional intelligence is the most important skill for leaders.

If a leader is prepared to hear feedback, to ask for advice, to be vulnerable in saying they don’t have all the answers, they cannot help but come up with a better outcome than taking it upon themselves to find all the answers. A leader’s role is to be like the conductor of an orchestra and make sure that they are embracing the diverse skills around them and getting all of the people to feel safe to be able to share their ideas, to help find solutions together with the leader, to be able to be vulnerable with them. Vulnerability does not mean talking to thousands of people that you have no idea how to get through this. It is about being able to link decisions you are making to a very human response. 

All of these ideal leadership capabilities are about being a very human leader and leading in a way that does not just think of people as a resource, but think of them as humans who need nurturing and need to be able to feel that they are contributing, to be able to help succeed.

All of these ideal leadership capabilities are about being a very human leader and leading in a way that does not just think of people as a resource, but think of them as humans who need nurturing and need to be able to feel that they are contributing, to be able to help succeed. Thus, leaders need to create a safe environment for their people. A leader has a lot of control over creating an environment where people feel safe to speak up. Others too can contribute to transforming an organizational culture in which the boss denigrates, humiliates, or just ignores the ideas shared by people. If one can find other like-minded souls in the organization who think the same way, then together they can work towards changing the culture from within.

Leader, on their part, should be mindful that not everyone will think the same way they do, and so they may come at solving problems in a very different way. If a leader’s automatic response is to think they do not need others’ input when it differs from their expectation or because they think they already know the answer, then that is not going to encourage people to speak up again. Leaders need to create an environment where everyone feels able to speak up about anything. They need to be exceedingly grateful for feedbacks, for the time someone is taking to tell them how their choices or their behaviors or their language is impacting that person. To create a true culture where people feel safe to speak up, it is critical to learn from feedbacks.

Kami Bond in Conversation with Kirstin Ferguson_

Kami Bond: You stumbled into being an advocate for empowering women, for diversity, and highlighting and empowering people. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about and what you learned through that experience?

Kristin Ferguson: It came about on one particular day when I noticed a thread of tweets aimed at a woman that I know, who is a journalist. You cannot help but notice the denigration that many women face on social media simply for having an opinion. When you are online, you feel like a bystander, who cannot help much in that situation. I wanted to find a way to be able to tell women’s stories. I believe every woman is a role model, regardless of what their role might be, and even if they don’t realize it themselves. So, I made a very public commitment to see if I could celebrate two women every single day, from anywhere in the world and all walks of life through 2017.

I started with no resources but a great deal of determination and a laptop. The first profile I did was of my mother. Despite not knowing who she was, people were interested in her story. After that, it spread very quickly. It was because of its inclusivity and diversity. There were no barriers to being involved, so every single woman who contacted me was celebrated. They came from all walks of life, from different races, tribes, and nationalities. It really made role models visible who might not otherwise have been seen. 

What began that day with a single tweet saw me eventually celebrate 757 women from 37 countries around the world. It taught me that we need to forget that old saying that if you should be so successful as to achieve your goals, you should lower the ladder down to help others. It’s ridiculous because a ladder can only help one person at a time. In fact, you hold on for dear life so that no one can get past. What the “Celebrating Women” campaign taught me is that we can all throw down a fishing net, all haul the sides and bring up many women together. 

Kami Bond: What are your thoughts on how remote interaction through work and social activities is going to change going forward? 

Kristin Ferguson: It is certainly going to change. In the near future, most meetings will continue to be like this, just for our own health and safety. The interesting part is that there are two kinds of people we see, ones who have completely integrated with and are loving remote work and the others who cannot wait to get back into the office and reconnect with everyone physically in their teams. There is no one-size-fits-all, and that is the answer for leaders and for organizations. It is going to really need to be a matter of checking in with everyone about what flexibility are they going to want to have. This crisis has absolutely created the need for us to develop flexibility overnight. There will be some people who will be reluctant to want to have to go back to the way they were working, and they’ve found that they can be really productive, inspired, energized, and creative at home. Leaders now need to find a way to make that a possibility for the future. There will be others who are looking forward to getting back into the office, and leaders need to find ways to make sure that everyone can do that safely as well. 

Kami Bond: If you could go back in time, what decision would you do differently as a leader?

Kristin Ferguson: There are many. If you are a leader, you make mistakes constantly, you are always hard on yourself. If you are self-aware, you always wish you could do some things differently than the way you already did. The lesson learnt is that mistakes never change and leaders must remember that they get lots of things wrong. Sometimes, we make choices to work in cultures that do not align with our values, for example, and every interaction feels like an effort and is tinged with anxiety. There might not be anything bad about that culture but it could just be the wrong fit, so we need to move on from those cultures as soon as possible. We do make the mistake of staying longer than needed in those kinds of environments.

Kami Bond: How can we allow ourselves and support leaders to merge into showing their true self and stay impactful as a leader? Is it earning and giving trust? 

Kristin Ferguson: Yes. Trust is a very important and challenging topic. You cannot take trust from anyone. You can only earn it, and the way to earn trust is to give trust. This environment of remote working has been a great way for leaders to actually show they trust the people that they have working with them. It is because leaders cannot physically see them but they can trust that their people are committed and as passionate about succeeding as they themselves are. That will help build trust, but trust takes a very long time to build and only a moment to lose. All leaders have had experiences where they think they have lost trust, perhaps because they broke a commitment or changed direction which made everyone feel unsteady. The best way to deal with it is to be really upfront about it and ask for feedback. So again, trust is around being transparent and being prepared to give trust first. 

With regard to vulnerability, there are many leaders who feel that if they show any weakness, any sense that they don’t know the answer, the world will collapse, and everyone who follows them will no longer respect them. I would encourage leaders to take little steps where you will be reassured that if you can show you can be vulnerable, you will actually gain more respect. Others will open up to you as well, which in turn builds relationships. An emotionally intelligent leader will know how to be vulnerable without losing any respect at all and Jacinda Ardern is a wonderful example of that. People want leaders who are real, they want to know that leaders are just like them, who don’t have all the answers. Leaders are not heroes who will save everyone, but someone who makes everyone feel empowered and that they are a part of the solution.

Kami Bond: Would you like to share some final thoughts?

Kristin Ferguson: No one could have been prepared to have to deal with what we are facing right now. So, I would say to leaders, be kind to yourself. Don’t expect that you are going to be able to become the world’s best, most emotionally intelligent leader overnight. We all have days where the most self-aware we can be is to not fire off an email that we really want to send. As leaders, we should also be kind to others. We really don’t know what everyone is going through at the moment, about how they might be having to deal with trauma or with loss of income or with childcare, or whatever it is. Try and understand what is going on for them before jumping to conclusions, because we need to use this crisis to be a better world afterward if we can, and that means every single one of us doing everything that we can to lead in a very human way. 

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