Who looks after our leaders?

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Covid-19 has sent shockwaves through the globe and is testing our state of readiness for something we should have seen coming. The alarm bells had been sounding, we just did not hear them or weren’t persuaded that the pending crisis was real. It is quite obvious that collectively we were simply not ready for what has hit us and what is still to come. It is also clear that, bar a handful that will make money out of the crisis, the vast majority of us will be adversely affected to various degrees. We’re all about to become poorer and I am certain that we cannot yet predict all the ripple effects that will result from this. It is the most vulnerable that will be hit the hardest.

This is not only affecting commercial entities or state entities that will suffer as a result of a lower tax base. It ripples into areas where I can bet my front teeth there have been no risk management considerations and plans in place. For example, I doubt whether there have been many pastors/priests who considered their churches being closed over an extended period that includes Easter. This means less tithes and offerings. Thus, many churches may go under. Having been a CEO of a professional body in a previous lifetime, I shudder at the thought of what this means for that sector. Many are heavily reliant on revenue from training and conferences, which are among the things that can no longer take place face to face. Online training may be the obvious answer, but not all that easy in areas where broadband is still an issue. In addition, membership fees is often the type of expense that companies will cut first when their own circumstances call for cost cutting measures. Members losing their jobs will not see membership fees as the number one priority they need to take care of.

For this generation there has never been a greater challenge for leaders to face. In all spheres of life. And the worst is still to come. One of the things that have been bothering me is whether organisational leaders, who are directly or indirectly responsible for people, are coping with the burden of leading their people through the uncertainty. One would of course expect the basics to be in place, such as regular communication with their people, giving direction and working toward minimising the impact on them. However, steering an organisation through these unchartered waters is a huge burden, especially when one starts to think about how the people are and will be affected.

There are suddenly new ethical dilemmas that many leaders have never had to face. And the inexperience is showing. Clear direction in policies may be lacking, which results in having to lead people through a maze with moving walls. When you are aware that a key staff member is Covid-19 positive, but need that individual to complete a project for a key client while knowing that losing the client may lead to job losses, what do you do? How to deal with stigmatisation in your organisation? How to allocate limited resources without violating the principle of equality? How long do you carry the staff when you know that the organisation’s reserves can only go so far?

People are scared. Not knowing whether they will have a job in the next few months and how they will cope is a nightmare. I am not even referring to those who have already lost their jobs or those, like myself, who are running small businesses that are dependent on what is referred to as the gig industry.

When people are scared, the last thing they need is leaders who crumble around them. This is what has been worrying me. How do leaders remain strong when they have to deal with inevitably being the bearers of bad news, such as the announcement the Edcon leadership has had to make? We often underestimate what it does to people in leadership positions when they have to tell people that they have to let them go. Especially in times like these when you know that their prospects of finding another job are low. Some may have to be the bearer of bad news while they themselves are living with the sword hanging over their heads. At best they would end up with a smaller workforce having to also pull the weight of those who are no longer there. So, those who remain, suffering from survivor’s guilt, must also carry a greater load than what is fair to them. That, in a climate where doing business is tougher with less clients able to pay the bills. These are not easy issues to deal with.

The sheer magnitude of the impact of the pandemic is mindboggling. There are already reports of a significant increase of people who are seeking help for anxiety and depression. Thus, I have been concerned about those in leadership positions and wondering how many of them are falling in the category of people who are already feeling completely overwhelmed or suffering from high levels of anxiety and/or depression as the bad news around the globe and inside their organisations keep on escalating. The news of the Finance Minister of Germany’s Hesse region reportedly having committed suicide, as a result of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the financial troubles the pandemic has caused, confirmed to me that we should be concerned about the leaders and their mental state. Many may not even be aware of how deeply they have been affected by the stress because they are running on adrenaline. This is a very dangerous state to be in. One often cannot see the effects on your body and mental state until it is too late.

I therefore implore those in leadership positions to take extra precautionary steps to protect themselves in order to ensure that they are able to lead their people through this maze without collapsing in the process. You are no good to anybody when you collapse, even if you may feel invincible now because of your adrenaline high. The reality is that leaders, in addition to their responsibility to lead others, must lead themselves through the maze too. Here are some of the things I think you must do if you are in a leadership position, but now more so than ever:

  1. Look after your body. Do not underestimate the damage the stress is causing to your body. Much of the damage will only become evident later. Increase your nutrient intake. Add supplements if you are not able to ensure that you get enough nutrition through your food. Cut out the food that cause damage, aka junk food. Drop bad habits that weaken your system, such as smoking. Ensure that you get enough exercise in. Don’t compromise in these areas.
  2. Look after your mental health. Look for signs of anxiety, high levels of stress and depression within yourself. It is very easy for us to suppress those feelings or go into utter denial. Often because we see them as a sign of weakness or distractions we cannot afford as we soldier on. Sometimes we need to stop in our tracks and ask ourselves whether our response to the circumstances is normal. So, for example, if you are not feeling any anxiety right now, it is likely that you are in denial and may be at risk of a breakdown or health failure later. If you don’t deal with it now, it will earn interest. Given what leaders have to contend with, some anxiety is normal. If it is too high, I strongly suggest that you get in contact with a psychologist or speak to your GP. You may need to take something like Urbanol or an anti-depressant to tide you over. To avoid getting to a state where you need outside help, find ways to lower your stress, such as meditation.
  3. Watch your responses around people. If you are more prone to anger outburst or detaching yourself from others, you are probably not dealing with the crisis as well as you should. Talk to a professional. You owe it to yourself and the people you’re leading.
  4. Don’t be a lone ranger. Allow your management team to help carry the burden and spread the responsibilities associated with navigating through the crises across the team. Listen to other voices. When in unchartered territory nobody has all the answers.
  5. Being at the top is lonely. Even with a strong management team/colleagues there are still some burdens that are carried alone. Get a sounding board who is not in the middle of the crisis with you. The more chaotic things become, the more one needs to talk to someone who can help you clear your head and plot a way forward. They don’t need to have the answers, but be able to ask you the right questions so that you can crystallise what you need to focus on and do. This is particularly helpful when one feels overwhelmed and does not know where to start. Sometimes it also helps to just vent instead of holding everything inside where it can fester.

Look after yourself, not just for yourself. You need to stay strong so that you can lead effectively in these unprecedented times.

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One Response

  1. Claudelle, Your words reflect your wisdom and experience in navigating crises. Thank you for reminding leaders of the importance of self care and reaching out for support. The hand they grab could be the difference between hope and despair. God bless you and be well.

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