Leadership – What’s in a word?

woman standing in a meeting with her team

People hate uncertainty. When it’s combined with fear it can quickly cause anxiety leading to unhelpful and irrational thoughts and actions. 

There is much talk about ‘leadership’ in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. We feel a sense of hope and pride when headlines celebrate demonstrations of inspirational leadership.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, reassuring children that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy as ‘essential workers’ spring to mind. Captain Tom Moore’s incredible fundraising effort prove that leadership is, as Simon Sinek says, ‘a choice, not a rank’. At other times we feel a sense of hopelessness, disbelief and anger when leaders fail us. Donald Trump, ‘sarcastically’ asking should we inject disinfectant.

Effective leadership is hard to sum up. Yet we instinctively know how it feels to be on the receiving end of it. We even experience visceral reactions to it. Captain Tom brings tears to our eyes. Our bodies physically shake when we feel let down by leaders who should protect us.

What does the word leadership mean?

To fully understand the concept of leadership it’s worth exploring the origins of the word.

The verb “lead” comes from the Indo-European word “leith” meaning “to cross a threshold”.

Our ancestors understood that the person who went first, was different from the tribe. That to lead the way required a different mentality. A different way of being. A being worthy of a new word.

In times of crisis, the role of leadership is to help people cross the threshold from fear to safety.

When we think about it, the people who have emerged as the most inspirational and effective world leaders through this crisis, – Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-wen and Katrín Jakobsdóttir. All have this one thing in common. They have successfully taken their people on a journey from fear to safety. Be it through clear regular communication, decisive action, innovative use of tech and a genuinely compassionate caring approach.

If leadership is essentially about how you make people feel, it makes sense that we need to stop asking what leaders are doing different and instead ask…

What are leaders role modelling?

People hate uncertainty. When it’s combined with fear it can quickly cause anxiety leading to unhelpful and irrational thoughts and actions. It’s vital that leaders are conscious about showing up in ways that dial down anxiety not peddle more of it. Emotions are contagious, the publics’ different reactions across the globe largely reflects the emotional barometers of their leaders. 

Are they leading inclusively?

It’s important no one feels outside the fold. If you’re checking in with people make sure you check in with everyone. Erna Solberg and Jacinda Ardern have been praised for addressing the children of their nations – taking the pressure of stressed and unsure parents. The leaders that stand out are the ones who have avoided finger pointing and have talked directly to all members of society. Most importantly the best leaders ask people what they need from them, they don’t assume to know.

Do they make statements or ask questions? 

In uncertain times no one has all of the answers. But this may not stop people from asking difficult questions and then catastrophising doomsday scenarios. The balancing act is to keep the conversation flowing, only making statements based on facts and data. While staying flexible and open to new information. And constantly asking better questions. 

Would something new work here?

Be it new ways of working together or even changing how your team works with other teams completely, uncertain times require agility to build resilience. Innovation often comes out of uncertainty. Now is the time for teamwork, experiments that might have been shelved in the past, and trying new things. Staying curious for new learnings and ways of working.

There has never been a greater time for collaboration and cooperation in leadership. There has never been a great need for inspirational leadership to help us cross the threshold to safety and survival.

To do this perhaps requires a focus shift from those in charge, from what they are doing to how they are being.