We’re at the mid-point of another tumultuous year, with deepening anxiety about a range of issues: the war in Ukraine, the prospect of famine in vulnerable countries, an escalation of the sickening plague of gun violence in the United States, ongoing Covid mutations making their way around the world… just to name a few of the more acute worries on what has become a lengthy list.
Meanwhile, the economy is giving off mixed signals at best, as inflation seems to have become entrenched in our late-pandemic world, supply chains groan under the weight of recent lockdowns in China and other, more systemic, factors, and stock markets sink into bear-market territory.
How are banking leaders meeting the current (fraught) moment?
Against this backdrop, I had the chance some weeks ago to speak with a number of senior banking executives about their personal approach to leadership. How are they coping with ongoing uncertainty and disruption, both personally and professionally? And how does that translate into the way they support their teams?
Some of these leaders had gathered virtually late last year for a discussion led by my colleague Mary Mesaglio on finding purpose and becoming a better leader. I wanted to catch up with them (happily, in person this time) to get a sense of what has changed in their lives as leaders since then… and what deeper lessons they have drawn from their recent experiences.
Our conversation yielded three key takeaways for executives trying to adapt to these turbulent times:
1. Strong, confident leaders are candid, transparent, and unafraid of showing vulnerability.
The candor—and vulnerability—of the people with whom I spoke were notable. Leaders, by nature, tend to be hyper-aware of the image they project; as a result, they won’t often acknowledge being especially worried or uncertain. The executives I talked with, though, admitted to not having all the answers. Also:
–They confessed to bouts of angst, pressure, and exhaustion, in addition to a lack of clarity.
–Many are very concerned about the well-being of their teams: one executive mentioned that her bank routinely holds active shooter drills in some locations.
–Perhaps one of the more telling comments was from a leader who said he felt a blend of despondence and confidence—a “mixed signals” emotional environment, if there ever was one.
The vulnerability that this group felt comfortable sharing appeared to reflect their belief in themselves as leaders and their desire to do the right thing. After all, if you really trust in yourself, you don’t obsess about how you might be coming across. You’re comfortable being exactly who you are. These executives seemingly understand that the times in which we live pose unique, thorny challenges, rendering many traditional notions of leadership obsolete.
2. Use your openness, emotion, and empathy to foster a resilient, cohesive culture for your team.
The second takeaway also had to do with vulnerability, but from a different angle: its role in creating a cohesive and trusting culture. (And culture certainly needs special nurturing in today’s “new-normal” remote or hybrid environments.) One leader, underscoring just how crucial culture is, made the point that only in a crisis do you know for sure if it’s there or not. If it does show up, you’ll realize you’ve succeeded in creating the right culture.
Another executive then helped shed light on why vulnerability matters when it comes to culture. His key leadership lesson over the past two years, he said, was how important it is to be transparent and unafraid of appearing vulnerable. In other words, admit it if you don’t have all the answers, and keep communications open about the challenges you face, the decisions you’re wrestling with, and what you expect of your team. This can bring multiple dividends:
–If you’re clear about problems and what’s being done to address them, that will help prevent the kinds of rumors and unfounded speculation that can stir up collective anxiety.
–If you show emotion and behave transparently, your staff will be more comfortable doing the same.
–And that transparency, together with a willingness to reveal vulnerability (part of what makes us human, after all), can, in turn, help an empathetic, open, and cohesive culture grow within your organization.
3. How to sail the unknown? Surround yourself with a diversity of perspectives. Reward honesty. And don’t be afraid to change course.
The third takeaway was about flying blind: navigating a world of incomplete, misleading information, a world in which it seems harder than ever to gauge where the winds will blow from next. As my colleague Ben Seesel remarked to these executives, “No business school taught you how to make decisions in this environment!”
So, as a leader, what should you do?
—Surround yourself with sharp and informed people. Get a diversity of perspectives in order to weigh risks and chart the course ahead more effectively.
–That first point speaks to the need for a culture of “brutal honesty”: reward staff for speaking truth to power, for giving you news you may not like. And be sure to create a safe environment for them to do so. Then move quickly to solve whatever problems have been surfaced.
–And speaking of a culture of honesty: don’t be afraid to admit your own mistakes. Be willing to change course. Backtracking or turning is not a sign of weakness. (Next time you’re at the beach, watch how sailboats tack through strong winds that might otherwise impede their progress, and remember that Odysseus, after a ten-year voyage of many a twist and turn, made it home at last!)
Learn, adapt, and remember our shared humanity.
The past few years have been exceptionally hard: an era of deep uncertainty, loss, and change. The executives with whom I spoke have not only been weathering these times, but trying to learn from what they’ve been through and adapt their approach accordingly. The best leaders will endeavor to map the way forward with empathy, openness, and an appreciation of just how important a caring, communicative culture is.