The Importance of Leader Visibility in Times of Crisis

Woody Allen once famously said that 80 percent of success is just showing up. The same is true of leadership–even in today’s increasingly virtual environment. This comes back to a phrase used in the U.S. Navy when the top leader is present: “Captain on deck.” When that statement is issued, you see sailors stand taller, puff out their chests, and deliver crisper salutes than before.

People respond when they know that their leader is watching and paying attention to them because they know they are important enough for that attention. That’s why there is such power is showing up as a leader.

Consider an organization I am involved with that’s experiencing tremendous turmoil in the current economic conditions. It’s seen a 40 percent reduction in revenue and the organization’s future is suddenly very uncertain. As you might imagine, morale was in the basement and rumors were swirling among the staff members quarantined in their homes. 

What made things worse was the organization’s leader was nowhere to be found. The truth was that the leader was working furiously behind the scenes and suffering through sleepless nights to see how he might find a way out of the current mess. But what he didn’t realize was that being present–even if via a video call–would have made a world of difference to the employees.

He needed to be seen because his team needed it. But, as someone who likes to control a situation, he was reluctant to share any information until he thought he knew how to answer everyone’s questions.

Unfortunately, by staying “below decks,” he invited rumors and misinformation to take his place. When people don’t see their leader, they make up stories–stories that are often far worse than the truth. From the employees’ perspective, their leader was hiding in a bunker and they were all about to lose their jobs.

By waiting until he had all the answers, this leader was missing an incredible opportunity to deliver an authentic response to his people. Even if he just told them the limited amount of what he knew and what he was still trying to figure out, his people would have responded enthusiastically.

When you’re willing to tell people the truth and be vulnerable in front of them, even when it’s scary, that’s how you build trust. Even if you don’t have an answer to a tough question, letting someone know that you don’t know but that you’ll find out, can go a long way, especially in the middle of a difficult situation.

Showing up like a captain on deck is not sending an email to everyone, either. In fact, that might backfire on you in a huge way. People draw powerful conclusions from the leader’s tone and body language, and an e-mail can’t deliver. It is critically important for people to see or at least hear a leader talk.

How often you need to show up on deck also depends on the situation. It can be just 30 minutes once a week in some situations, or, when things are really hitting the fan, it might be an hour or so once a day. You need to be able to gauge the situation. People can’t get the impression that you are hiding out in your bunker, no matter how hard you might be working.

Look, I’ve been there. When you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s natural to just put your head down and fight through until you find the answer you’re looking for. But great CEOs recognize that they are more than analysts; they are leaders of people. And if you want to lead effectively, especially during a difficult situation, you need to make yourself present, especially when it is terrifying and uncomfortable.

The good news is that the leader of the organization I mentioned earlier finally emerged and connected with other leaders inside the company via multiple video calls. He had the courage to show and tell them that he didn’t have all the answers. By telling them what he did know and what he didn’t, he helped calm the chaos. People inside the organization suddenly didn’t feel adrift anymore, wondering if there was anyone steering the ship. What’s funny is, the situation wasn’t any different than before he emerged, but people felt better, were more focused and calmer.

So, if you’re facing a crisis today or in the future, don’t forget the power of being present and that your people are looking to the captain on deck for leadership and inspiration. It might stink, but it’s your job.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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