The Opposite of Fear
In uncertain times, the leader is the message, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.
When we face fear—whether personally or of the more existential variety— the natural inclination for any of us is to be paralyzed. But taking no action is an action – often, an ill-advised action.
If knowledge is power, then people need to be empowered by information.
As a CEO, I’ve always compared the leader’s role to that of a shepherd: occasionally in front, sometimes beside, and often behind. These days, however, the leader must be in front.
Sharing information is critical, but far less than half the battle. Of course, people need to know about strategy, speed, direction, and results. But it can’t stop there.
Language is an art to express ideas—but the messenger is the message. “Actions speak louder than words” is true for everyone—and twice as true for leaders. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.
Verbally and nonverbally, the way in which communication occurs—humbly, passionately, confidently—has more impact than merely the words chosen.
Communication is where leadership lives and breathes. It informs, persuades, guides, assures, and inspires. Here’s how:
Listen for the truth.
If leaders want to hear the truth, they must welcome it. That won’t happen, though, unless people feel it’s safe to say what they really think without fear of retribution and not just what they think leadership wants to hear. Leaders need to ensure a culture of world-class observers, where information doesn’t just cascade down—it bubbles up. Observation needs to be a “team sport” as people throughout the organization are empowered to speak up and share their views about what they see. Perspectives will differ, but that only enriches the discussion. And, when perspectives are shared, people learn.
The information highway.
Communication is far more than a transmission of information. Communication needs to be the “information highway,” flowing freely in both directions and in every circumstance. Important in good times—crucial in challenging ones.
More assurance, less authority.
Communication is connecting and engaging with others. Messages must be delivered frequently and consistently, with candor and honesty. That means speaking with more assurance than authority—and being concerned with tone as well as content. Passionate, confident words motivate. Although information is crucial, if the message lacks authenticity, the team’s follow-through may be lackluster—or even lacking.
People would rather know the truth.
In bull markets, people look to the leader for validation. In bear markets, they look to the leader for assurance. When faced with a challenge, people would rather know the truth than dwell in the worst-case scenarios residing in their imaginations. Leaders who don’t communicate will become the subject of others’ communication—and not in a flattering way.
Beware the vacuum.
If not addressed, a lack of information can lead to hazardous uncertainty. People will spend their time speculating, because there’s an information vacuum that needs to be filled. Uncertainty breeds conjecture, escalating fear and causing chaos. No matter how serious the news, people prefer certainty. To predict tomorrow, people have to accurately perceive the reality of today. Then you can plot a course for tomorrow.
No shortcuts allowed.
Communication takes time—and lots of it. The temptation, therefore, is to take shortcuts such as assuming that people already know certain information or else glossing over a message from an employee or passing it along to someone else. Take time to acknowledge messages—and the messengers. Show others that they matter.
Remember, for a leader in uncertain times—and, in particular, these times—it’s not simply about staying on message. The leader is the message.