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In a survey of the performance of leaders in 16 Legitimate Leadership client companies and organisations during the first months of the coronavirus crisis, the results showed that their leaders were more successful in demonstrating care and compassion than they were in using the crisis to empower and bring out the best in their people.

Legitimate Leadership says there are two criteria for legitimate power: care and growth.

The results of the Leading in Crisis diagnostic survey showed that leaders delivered admirably on the care criterion, but did not deliver on the growth criterion to the same extent. They did not capitalise on the opportunity the crisis offered to empower people and enable them to be the best that they could be.

The diagnostic survey was conducted by Legitimate Leadership in May-July 2020. 282 interviews were conducted by Legitimate Leadership staffers on 16 organisations across seven industries. The interviews were with both managers (56%) and non-managers (44%).

Most of the managers had been through Legitimate Leadership training; most of the non-managers had not.

The results were presented in a webinar (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfWpgCDUJu8&t=11s)  held on 11 September 2020. Presenters of the webinar were Wendy Lambourne and Josh Hayman, and the moderator was Ian Munro, all from Legitimate Leadership. The webinar was attended by 81 people.

The webinar conveyed six key insights which Legitimate Leadership gained from the survey – into what is working, what is not working, and what opportunities exist for leaders in client organisations which participated as they continue to work to gain the support and trust of their people during the crisis.

The questions asked in the survey addressed:

  • Has management focused on people or results during the crisis?
  • How has trust changed as a result of how leaders have responded in the crisis?
  • How aligned are leaders with the Legitimate Leadership criteria?
  • Are leaders collaborating effectively with one another?
  • Have you seen examples of excellent leaders? If so, what has made them stand out?
  • What are your expectations of leaders going forward?

Insight 1: People draw conclusions about what you care about by looking at where you spend your time, what you give your attention to, and whose agenda you prioritise.

From the responses, the five top reasons given as evidence of a primary concern for people by leaders were: concern for employee welfare; concern for safety; regular, clear communication; ‘checked in on me’/available; and, honesty/transparency.

When leaders were seen to have made their people their primary concern, this was because they put people’s health and safety first, no matter the impact on results. Moreover they demonstrated personal concern for individuals, stayed in contact to find out how they were doing under the circumstances and kept them informed to the best of their abilities. The above was more important in promoting this perception than job or income security.

Legitimate Leadership believes that care is about much more than, and sometimes not even, looking after people’s physical and material needs – that care is about genuine concern for the individual as a human being, not as a human resource.

Comment from the webinar presenters: “The fundamental question is ‘whose agenda is put first?’ And if it is the employee’s agenda, what is that agenda? Legitimate Leadership believes employees want their leaders to show concern for them personally; to talk to them and listen to them; to coach them and empower and grow them; to hold them accountable; and to build a team. Of course none of these will save your business … or will they? If you want people to care for your business, first and foremost you must care for them.

“It is a tribute to our clients that despite the immense pressure in the situation, leaders were able to find the time to focus on and deliver on the employees’ agenda.

“Remarkable also was the level of gratitude to management of people reflected in the interviews, and the level of willingness and generosity that that unleashed.

“Leaders might be tempted to say, ‘I don’t have time for people because I’m too busy saving the company, and people should be grateful for that’. But saving the company is not what people notice. They notice the personal touch. Saving the company is in the leader’s interests as well as the people’s interests; but focusing on employees is squarely in the employee’s interests.”

Insight 2: Trust is not a function of circumstance, situation or position in the hierarchy – it is a function of intent.

From the responses, the five top reasons for significant increases in trust were: regular, clear communication; concern for employee welfare; honesty/transparency; concern for safety; and new responsibilities/’trusted us’.

Legitimate Leadership believes there are four ways to earn trust and gain legitimate power:

  • Building personal relationships by getting to know the person and having due concern for personal circumstances.
  • Spending time on and giving attention to what is important to the person.
  • Putting the other person’s interests first; being values- not needs-driven.
  • Trusting them, handing over decision making authority, giving up control.

Comment from the presenters: “When trust in management increased it was because management showed genuine concern for their people’s welfare, put their people’s interests before their own, gave time to what was important to their people such as keeping them informed, and entrusted them with new responsibilities.”

Insight 3: Leaders were significantly more successful in demonstrating care and compassion than they were in using the crisis to empower and bring out the best in their people.

Legitimate Leadership believes there are two criteria for legitimate power: care and growth.

From the responses, leaders surveyed delivered on the care criterion, putting people’s health and safety first, being available, keeping them informed and providing support. But they did not deliver on the growth criterion to the same extent and did not capitalise on the opportunity the crisis provided to empower people and enable them to be the best they could be.

Regarding growth, when rating their leadership against the criteria for Legitimate Leadership (where -10 was very poor and +10 was very good), respondents rated their leaders at +6.2 for ‘clear expectations’; +4.6 for ‘support and watching the game’; but only +1.5 for ‘empowerment’.

Comment from the presenters: “The seminal research in the South African gold mining industry, on which the Legitimate Leadership Model is based, said if trust improved over a period it was due to one thing only: that management had shown a genuine concern for the wellbeing of their people. In this diagnostic leaders did demonstrate that to their people, so, not unsurprisingly, trust increased.

“But Legitimate Leadership also believes that people trust managers who trust them – in other words, when managers also meet the growth/empowerment criterion. This aspect came through clearly in these findings: leaders were most successful in demonstrating care, but on the growth criterion, they did not perform as well.

“Empowerment did happen, but more by default than design – it was necessitated by the need for remote working arrangements. Because managers and employees were no longer physically together, employees were trusted to do their jobs and take independent decisions.

“However a countervailing force is that in a crisis people look to managers to be saviours. And it is tempting for managers to comply. But the price of this is too high: by saving the day, managers kill initiative, creativity, ownership and accountability.

“Legitimate Leadership also says unless you deliberately choose empowerment over control you will revert to control. In an example (not during this crisis), devolution was successfully achieved by a factory manager moving his office off the factory floor so people had to take their own decisions. But you cannot wait for something like that to empower people.

“In this crisis, within some client organisations many controls were thrown out of the window. For instance, one company didn’t keep a register of what was removed for remote working; in the past such removals would have caused a bureaucratic nightmare. In another, previous requirements for sick notes were thrown out, and when some normality returned it was decided not to reimpose them in the belief that employees would be responsible adults. And Legitimate Leadership’s client in the platinum mining industry built a hospital in eight weeks, which would have been impossible previously.

“We say, when this is over, resist the temptation to reimpose excessive controls and excessive reporting because they don’t add value.”

Legitimate Leadership’s recommendation is that leaders should push decision-making authority as far as possible down the line. They should empower managers to empower their people to do, not do themselves. Leaders should seek new responsibilities which will accelerate growth. And they should resist resurrecting the old controls and excessive, detailed reporting.

Insight 4: In this crisis people valued hard-working leaders with a personal touch over visionaries and strategists.

From the responses, what made the standout leaders exceptional?

  • Connecting/checking in on a personal level and demonstrating genuine concern.
  • Being available to and giving their people support.
  • Communicating openly, honestly and transparently, disclosing information, and really listening.
  • Being in the trenches with their people.
  • Working hard, going above and beyond and taking on additional responsibilities.

Comment from the presenters: “We are not saying that it’s not important to have insight and strategy to help the organisation to survive and thrive, but we are saying that that is not what leaders will be remembered and revered for. Will you be revered for managing to restore your company to 100% income quickly or being deeply concerned about difficult personal circumstances which arose because of the crisis?”

Insight 5: Superhero leadership works. So does spreading the load (which is Legitimate Leadership’s strong preference).

From the responses, who were the standout leaders?

In some organisations there were one or two superheroes at the top who were seen by respondents to have excelled during the crisis. In other organisations respondents pointed to numerous individuals, at every level including first-line management, who had shown exceptional leadership during the crisis.

Legitimate Leadership believes that for sustainable organisational excellence there must be legitimate leaders at every level. Excellent leaders cultivate excellent leaders below them.

Comment from the presenters: “if you are saving the day but haven’t built many leaders below you, you haven’t been successful. Were standout leaders in the crisis standout leaders before the crisis? Yes, many were, but the crisis also prompted new standout leaders to come forward.”

Insight 6: What people are looking for from leaders at this time is clear: communication, compassion, empowerment, flexibility, visibility and appreciation.

From the responses, what are the expectations of leaders going forward?

  • Communication – not too much, honest, human, short and interactive. Listen more and trust people with financial information.
  • Compassion and connection – check in on people with one-to-ones and be caring, approachable, supportive and empathetic.
  • Empowerment – less micromanagement, stop checking up, fewer meetings and less reporting. Enable people to take ownership and accountability by handing over control.
  • Flexible working arrangements – don’t go back to normal, allow different ways of working. Help people to work remotely and leaders to lead remotely.
  • Visible leadership – be visible and available, especially if you’re working remotely from your team. Make time to watch the game and give your people your full attention.
  • Recognition and appreciation – be deliberate and don’t fall victim to ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Recognise people for careful work; reward them for going the extra mile.

Comment from the presenters: “For trust to increase further, leaders need to maintain the positive leadership behaviours and practices evidenced during the crisis and do still more to convince their people of their change in intent. To retain the gains made in trust, managers should continue to show genuine concern; keep communication brief but human and interactive; work as a team; stick to short, focused meetings where decisions are made without delay; trust their people more (relax controls and reduce reporting, deliberately increase decision-making authority and autonomy); make both behavioural and performance expectations crystal clear; and hold their people accountable for their value-added delivery – not their presence or the results.”