Leadership Traits That Matter in Times of Crisis

May 24, 2023 – What a difference context makes in our perceptions of leadership. After 9/11, Jose J. Ruiz,  chief executive officer of executive search firm Alder Koten, asked a group of friends from New York what they thought of Rudolph Giuliani. They unanimously replied that he was a great leader – decisive, assertive, and determined, with the ability to inspire a sense of security in a time of fear and crisis. “When mayor Giuliani later ran for President, I asked the same group the same question,” Mr. Ruiz said in a recent report. “They then said, again unanimously, that he was a weak leader – stubborn, hard-headed, and prone to making unilateral decisions.”

In a context of immediate crisis, Giuliani’s character and management style had made him appear to be an exemplary leader. “However, that changed when the context shifted from an immediate crisis to the challenge of leading a nation of many voices and political differences over the long term,” said Mr. Ruiz. “What they had once seen as decisiveness and assertiveness struck them as inflexibility.”

Certainly, decisiveness, assertiveness, and determination are typically cited as essential traits for a great leader. So are integrity, intelligence, self-confidence, and – in the world of commerce – general and industry-specific business acumen. “Our work at Alder Koten with boards and CEOs shows there are other often overlooked traits of leadership that enable leaders to stand the test of time,” said Mr. Ruiz. “A series of recent conversations with leaders and others confirms it. It is these traits, coupled with the other more obvious leadership qualities like decisiveness, which are particularly valuable in times of profound and prolonged crisis.”

Adapting to Change

“The key is adaptability,” said Gilad Langer, product strategist and technical leader at Camstar Systems, a leading provider of enterprise manufacturing execution and quality systems, as cited by Alder Koten. Mr. Langer explained that people who are continuously perceived as great leaders adapt to what is required to remain effective and influence the teams they lead. “As business technology consultant Gary Clarke, puts it, ‘The qualities of leadership that are respected and admired by others shift with the demands of time and as the group’s needs and perceptions shift as well,’” Alder Koten said. “About the current economic situation, Mr. Clarke says, ‘Right now, someone who can demonstrate empathy, clarity, and sacrifice would be nice to see as opposed to greed and aloofness.’”

George Dakos, managing director of Stedima Business Consultants, Athens agrees. “The great leader should be able to act as a beam of courage and optimism for others when they are hit by the crisis blues,” he told Alder Koten.

Related: The Skills That Help CEOs Make the Right Choices

However, that does not mean that employees want to be shielded from the truth. Most people, when asked what they expect from their leaders in times of economic crisis, say they want honest communication and transparency. The Alder Koten report cited Avi Singer, director of organizational development at Undertone Networks, an online advertising network, who pointed out that people would much rather hear bad news, prepare themselves, and act rather than live in anxiety.

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Smart recruiters don’t expect candidates for leadership roles to have it all. But those leaders must have a preponderance of it all and they must be able to lead it all. Any gaps or blind spots that he/she/they have must be ably or mightily filled by one of their current or prospective direct reports to mitigate and minimize organizational risk. A new report from BroadView Talent Partners, however, says there is one corollary to this rule: A CEO absolutely must have superior communication and influencing capabilities.

Alder Koten said: “As an executive from a Fortune 100 company observed after she was laid off: ‘I am concerned about my future, but I am grateful to the organization for the way they went about doing things. The public announcement regarding cuts was made on Monday. They told us who was being laid off on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the CEO announced it was over.’”

The Needs of the Future

Many people agree that empathy, transparency, and other traits that provide comfort and stability are what employees want in their leaders now. However, a leader’s responsibility goes beyond what people want now. Leaders must also bear the burden of balancing current needs against the needs of the future, a balancing act that requires courage, especially in times of economic crisis. The Alder Koten report referenced Kevin Kelly, former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, who said;  “Courage in leadership is about making decisions that are for the benefit of the organization over oneself.”

As these conversations indicate, these uncertain times call for leaders with a subtle mix of characteristics. “They must provide comfort and stability, show empathy, exude optimism, proceed transparently and sincerely – all while making difficult decisions, taking courageous action, and decisively guiding their teams,” said Mr. Ruiz. “That is a tall order, but we’ve seen it fulfilled time and again by great leaders in times of crisis.”

Alder Koten helps clients acquire, develop, and transition leadership talent through a combination of research, executive search, cultural and leadership assessment, and other talent advisory services, which include career planning, outplacement, coaching, and leadership training. The firm has offices in Bogota, Dallas, Guadalajara, Houston, Mexico City, Monterrey, and New York.

Related: Essential Leadership Skills For A “Work Anywhere Anytime” World  

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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