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Leading Through Crisis

Vulnerability might be the most important part of establishing employee trust

Dr. Christene Lawther and Dr. Samantha Coleman

Dr. Christin Lawther, the instructor for the Conscious Leadership and Team Management certificate program at the University of Chicago, sat down with Dr. Samantha Coleman, the program's developer, to discuss the most important leadership skills in the pandemic and beyond.

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Read a full transcript of the event lightly edited for clarity: 

SAMANTHA COLEMAN: Hello, everyone, my name is Dr. Samantha Coleman, and I am the creator of the Conscious Leadership and Team Management program for the University of Chicago. It is such a pleasure to be here with you today, I want to have an opportunity to introduce myself to you and speak with my colleague about this fantastic program, what it has to offer, and how you can take your leadership to the next level. So just a little bit about me: On a daily basis, I am the director of student experience and academic advising at Adler University. I am also an executive coach for the Center for Creative Leadership. Additionally, my research interests revolve around psychological capital, which is essentially hope, self efficacy, resilience, and optimism—meaning that everyone can be their own hero. Additionally, I really enjoy looking at team management, how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation drive people in the workplace, workplace engagement—so every aspect of essentially how leaders are able to take themselves to the next level, and how they are able to level up and master themselves first before they can master anyone else.

CHRISTINE LAWTHER: Hello, everyone. My name is Dr. Christine Lawther. Currently, I am an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago, teaching this wonderful program that Dr. Coleman has designed. It is a two-course program. The first course is six weeks in duration and allows you to learn about conscious leadership. This really builds your skill set and understanding how people experience you as a leader. And then the second course is in team management, and thought behind this is that once you start to build the skills and mastering yourself, then you can build the capability and leading others not only in high performance, but in shaping their career [by] being an excellent coach and advocate and propelling their career forward. Outside of supporting the University of Chicago, I am a leader at a technology company here in Chicago. And my research interests are in virtual leadership and looking at emotional intelligence. So Dr. Coleman, I'm so excited to have the opportunity to chat with you a bit today. You know, the year 2020 has been really incredible, has taught us quite a bit both on a personal and professional front. And I really just love to set up some time and chat with you about thinking through managing crisis at work and the role and influence that leaders have in that. So what are some actionable steps you feel that leaders can take in terms of supporting team members when they experience any type of crisis or trauma? How can they effectively lead their teams through?

SC: That is such a great question, Dr. Lawther, and I think the first thing that comes to mind for me is that we have to acknowledge that a crisis has occurred, or that someone is actually experiencing a trauma. So I think it's easy sometimes, as leaders, to not be fully in touch with what's happening with our team members, what's happening within the organization, or what's happening within the midst of the world. It's the pandemic—not just the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the pandemic of racial injustice within the United States—it really brought about a red flag, not like they weren't already waving in the wind. But it really brought about that we are enduring crisis and trauma on a daily basis. and it's being swept under the rug. We're not acknowledging that these things actually occur. We're not communicating with our team members to really even get to know them on a personal basis, to even be able to acknowledge that within the workplace, and I think that to me is one of the the first steps is to acknowledge that it's occurring, and then being courageous enough to have conversations with people about what it is that they are experiencing, and then listening. Engaging in active listening, so not just saying, like, Oh, I've had this conversation, and so now I know everything. And that's it like a conversation should be enough. Rather, it's active listening, and then intentionally trying to determine what are going to be the next steps but with collaboration from individuals about what's going to be best for them, which will ultimately be best for the organization.

CL: I love your sentiment about active listening. When I think of leaders, I think it's often people who are really strong doers, and that's how they've been able to grow in their career. They're really action-oriented, they get the job done, they raise their hand in meetings, but sometimes the best thing for a leader to do is to step into a space of humility and just say let me learn, let me understand your experience, because it may be profoundly different than a team member, especially if the team member is going through some type of struggle that the leader hasn't personally experienced themselves. Sometimes that's a difficult shift. But I love your sentiment about active listening, and really indulging in curiosity and really wanting to take on another person's perspective.

SC: One hundred percent, and I've appreciated the word shift that you've utilized, again, when we think back to what has occurred over the past year and a half—because again, make no mistake, we've used the terms like, Oh, it was a year ago. It's dipping into the two-year mark almost at this point. And so when we talk about shift, there also has to be a recognition from leaders that things are never going to be the same. And that's okay because that's part of what learning is. That's part of active listening is: Let me understand, let me listen to people about how it won't be the same, and then shifts accordingly. I think if we don't shift at this point, in a way of excitement—it's something brand new, there's a lot of opportunities here—the shift is going to be critical, [and] e're talking about the pandemic, not just COVID-19, but everything that has happened with racial injustice. What do you think are going to be the lasting effects of these pandemics?

CL: I think about this topic of work-life balance. Is there truly a balance, or is it more of an integration? I call that out because, as we think about the pandemic and prior—maybe people were going to a physical office every day, and maybe they were able to kind of segregate anything, then 2020. As you noted, we're still in it right now. That started to kind of amalgamate together, right? And so you're on a Zoom meeting, you may have a child running around in the background, you may have a family member to support. And so I think a lasting effect will be, are these items truly separate? Or now is it the driver of a main initiative, a leader is to look at how can we best integrate this and how do we support team members entirely, as an entire person, and not just look at it from a transactional "you're here to do your job, and then when you clock out, you leave." Because it's not separate. I fully believe people take themselves wherever they go. So if there's something happening in your personal life, absolutely, it will bleed and some component into your professional life.

SC: That's so true. So true. Like, we have to be okay with the fact that our personal bleeds into our professional, and vice versa, right, and it's been really brought to light now over with our experiences over the past year and some change. So you brought up the word balance. do you believe that we can actually strike a balance now? Is that a goal?

CL: Oh, that there ever is a complete, uniform, fifty-fifty balance? I think it's always in a moment of fluctuation, if you visualize a seesaw. You may go through moments or seasons where you're incredibly focused, let's say on your career, but then there may be a shift, and you may need to tap into prioritizing your family. And so, again, I don't think they're ever fully segregated. I think it's about finding where you are right now and what's the best step for you. But I think it's important for leaders to recognize that because sometimes, they have this one-lens focus of are you meeting the expectations of your job? And that's only a facet of some person's life. 

SC: So personally, I don't know if you've ever known this about me, but as a little girl, I was into music. I played the piano, and then I played flute, clarinet, so I'm very sensitive to harmony and pitch and different things that I hear in music, like I'm always listening for the back beat in a song. And so I wonder, have you heard of this concept called work/life harmony? It's different from balance. I think a lot of times, especially women, we get to a place where we feel guilty if we are not completely in balance. So work, life, everything has to be going perfectly. But for anyone that is watching this video, I would want them to take in consideration everything about what you said as it relates to integration, but to think about things in terms of harmony. So for instance, you may have work you also have things family life, you also have hobbies and other things that you are interested in. And frankly, it is impossible to give everything a balance, right? So like, there is no fifty-fifty, but let's say, for instance, that you're able to give work fifty percent and your personal life twenty-five percent and your hobbies twenty-five percent. But what if you show up to each of those domains one-hundred percent, so not guilting yourself into I haven't achieved balance, but am I in harmony? I think one of the things for leaders, one of the effects of this is whether or not we can recognize whether or not our teams, our leaders themselves, are in harmony with themselves and can also recognize that and build that up within their organization.

CL: I love that sentiment of harmony, and I'd be curious to know your thoughts on what are some ways that leaders can actually hold themselves accountable to assessing their employee needs, so that it's not just one-hundred percent on an individual contributor, but a leader also has a stake in the ground of wanting to support this concept of harmony.  

SC: I think it goes back to that effective communication, as well as being very clear about expectations, and then adjusting those expectations. So I think what we might have wanted or expected or our standards previously, we recognize that perhaps they need to shift as you stated. And then from there, are we talking to our stakeholders about what that means? Are we providing them feedback, positive and challenging? We're making sure that we are in alignment with those standards, and then are we developing people past that point, I think one of the hallmarks of leadership is this desire to develop, not just looking at whether or not people are checking the boxes of their day to day activities. And I, I personally, feel that when you are actively engaged in that, that leaders find more harmony. So almost like if I'm coming into my workspace and I'm looking at the task for the day, I guess I have to do this from a tactical perspective, but then the other part of my week, is really on developing others, how am I holding myself accountable to developing other people. And in doing so, I'm keeping the standards high within my department, within my organization, but I'm also keeping the standards high for myself. So it's like, you can't develop someone else without developing yourself, by default. We teach, and every time we teach content over and over again, we get a different understanding of it. 

CL: I love that. That's a wonderful perspective. Another thing I was immediately thinking of is the importance of demonstrating appreciation. So what's really interesting is that so many people, I think, the pandemic, and as we think about racial and social injustice, it's really causing people to reflect on themselves and their life and say am I happy? What am I doing? Is this position serving me? Do I feel a sense of purposeI recently read an article and it was saying that one of every four Americans is now questioning their career. Because you think about turnover and changing, I think about a leader really supporting the needs of their staff is also taking the time to demonstrate and just show appreciation for what they do and get out of a purely transactional dynamic and say I appreciate your effort today; today may have been a hard day, but you showed up, I appreciate that you're willing to be flexible during a challenging time. I think that can go a tremendous way, and it's really important to not only focus on who and individuals today, but also show them praise and support along their journey.

SC: I love that. As you were talking, I began to think about appreciation. And sometimes leaders, being fearful about developing people are almost like, if I'm giving them too much praise, then they're going to leave or look for another opportunity. So my question for you would be what are your thoughts on giving appreciation, praising, supporting, and being okay? As a leader, is that enough? Isn't a place in their lives at this point where they need to explore another opportunity.

CL: I've certainly heard and experienced this concept of hoarding talent: somebody who's really phenomenal, the leader wants to keep them. But I'd actually argue that a sign of a good leader is having staff outgrow them. People should be evolving. People should not—as we think about just our culture, today, somebody is not staying in one job and one role for their entire career and then retiring, right? At least they're evolving in an organization, and they're expanding their careers. That said, and I would argue that if we have an employee, and they're purely stagnant, and there's no evolution and no growth, then is that a flag of the leader? What is the leader doing? Because I believe a hallmark of strong leadership is supporting and uplifting your staff.

SC: That is definitely a blind spot, like that's something that we talked about within the certificate program as well, which is: is that a leadership blind spot, thinking that someone is irreplaceable? They are. And it's okay for someone to move on to the next level. And I really like what she said, like, that's the hallmark of good leadership. How I also like to think of it as well is that if my team is progressing, if they're doing what they need to do, then ideally, there is an opportunity within my organization for growth, because that sort of leadership is being acknowledged, or there's not an opportunity within my organization, and therefore I should be seeking out another opportunity that is in alignment with my knowledge, skills, and abilities and talents and everything else that comes into play. The fear aspect, I think, comes in with leaders and employees, right, in terms of really getting in tune with what they want. And this year has definitely allowed for people to get more in touch with themselves, which to your point about your article, people are making that that great escape.

CL: And so as you think about all of the lessons that both individuals and leaders have kind of experienced throughout this past year, and currently still this year, what do you think are some of the most valuable lessons that leaders can take moving forward?

SC: Yeah, I feel like there's so many, I always like to start with the individual first. So again, for anyone that's interested in this certificate program, that's where we always start is with ourselves first. So I think leaders need to really get in touch with who they are, and I know for some, this may sound like a little fluffy, but I think it's important to write down what you want because just simply talking about it doesn't necessarily provide fruit. Like if you think about it in terms of a, like a New Year's resolution, right? So there's a difference between by talking about it and writing it down. So now I've done you know, a multitude of different things. So it's like, it's a thought I might have said it loosely to somebody else. Now I'm writing it down. And then from there, saying like, okay, who can hold me accountable in this? So does that mean that you are seeking out a coach for yourself? Doesn't mean that you're looking for a mentor? In some ways, are you potentially looking for a therapist or all of the above? Right. So I think that also when we talk about trauma and crisis, we definitely cannot omit the fact that there are personal ramifications for those things. So you might need a little smorgasbord of supports, if you will, in order to get you to the place of even identifying who you are. I think another valuable lesson from the pandemic is that at the end of the day, we're all human beings. So regardless of your title, regardless of who you manage, how you work, what your salary is, this was an eye opener, that we are all the same. And in that knowledge, it's important to treat people with dignity, and respect. There's a lot of stuff that I can go into but I want to hear some of your thoughts too, and perhaps we can dig a little bit deeper.

CL: Another lesson that I immediately think of is stepping into a place of uncertainty and almost being okay with that. So again, I think often leaders, people look to them and say, What is the answer? What are we doing? How does it look to work virtually? Sometimes leaders feel, Oh, my gosh, I have to respond, I have to type my message, I have to reply to that email, and you may not know. I think it's okay to stand in a place of vulnerability and say, I may not actually have the right answer. This is what I'm thinking about trying. What's your perspective? Poke some holes in what I'm kind of brainstorming how we approach this and just embracing that uncertainty. You mentioned fear earlier on, and I think that's absolutely real. Everyone, you know, our brains want to keep us safe. And we want to keep us protected, you know, and just surviving day-to-day and when you are, so many norms are kind of threatened in a certain way can be really alarming to you. And so if leaders can almost be comfortable, you know, walking into territory that's not completely comfortable to them and embracing that, I think that helps them not only build their skills and change management, but also build their skills and vulnerability and stepping into a place of humility with their team, and kind of walking with them almost through the trenches of something. So I think that's incredibly important. I also think it'll be really important for leaders in the future to think about how to actually connect with my staff on a genuine level and get out of superficial reality? So really say how are you. And sometimes people say, Okay, good. And then you keep going, but really say, No, how are you though? I've noticed you've kind of stopped being engaged, is everything, okay? And really just being able to sit in that moment, even if it's a bit uncomfortable, and have that conversation and not just do these pleasantries, especially that we find often in corporate organizations, you know, so that, to me, will be a flag of future leaders that are incredibly strong.

SC: One word that you said that stood out to me was threats. It's kind of like aligning it back to, and it made me think about, like, the perception of threat and that feeling very real to us. And then once we feel that threat, the emotions that it brings up with us within us, and how we then act accordingly. And I think about how we act towards ourselves, you know, and then also how those emotions bubble up, and that's how we treat other people as well. I think it will be critical for people to get in touch with where they perceive threats, and the emotions that come alongside it and to be able to say to themselves, like, is this really a true, you know, sort of threat? Or is this something that has been based on previous experience, or even a warped worldview? I think it's just that with the pandemics that we've experienced, we have to look deeper, we have to dig deeper, and we cannot only scratch the surface, to your point about like the pleasantries. It's not enough to just simply be nice and smile, and try to give the, again, the perception that you are okay. When you may not be because that is doing nothing for yourself, it's also doing nothing for your team. and dare I say, it will also hold you and your team members stagnant. But it's almost like failing to even again, acknowledge that there is an issue. And so sometimes we can be almost like authentic to a fault. So it's like, well, yeah, like, this is me. And, you know, I'm just gonna be you know, okay. And you know, that's fine. But then is that what your team members need? They may need to do something, you know, different. So, again, I just think it's going to be very important to to get in touch with ourselves, even though that can sometimes feel very light, but it is one of the hardest things to do.

CL: Absolutely. I feel we're rarely taught that either through a personal or academic lens of like, truly know, what are you feeling? How are you experiencing that? How do people then experience you? We're often not fortunate to have that type of education. I think the Conscious Leadership program absolutely taps into that, and we work quite a bit on perspective taking and again how people experience you, which can be completely different of how you perceive something versus another person experiences you. So I love that sentiment about that. What do you think? Are the implications of people working virtually now? Do you think they're going to want to return to work?

SC: No. In the work that I've been doing, at least from a coaching perspective, I think people are in love now with hybrid ability, right? So being able to work virtually, and then also having that daily routine where you get up, you grab your coffee, you do your whole thing. And that feels good, too. You know, so I think that folks like to vacillate in between the two worlds. And then there are also some people that are like, no I'm good, the virtual world is, you know, where I can fully reside. And then I do think you still have people who would prefer to, you know, go back into a physical location. But at least what I've been hearing is that most people would like to hold on to some semblance of what it means to work remotely.

CL: I absolutely agree, and it makes me think of your concept of harmony, you know, how can I kind of blend things together? Maybe do I have to pick up a child off a school bus, but then also still be efficient in my job? And how can I kind of keep some semblance of that going together? So that's an excellent point.

SC: Yeah. And with your experience in virtual leadership, how do you think that this changes? Because we've been talking about leadership broadly, but I mean, the pandemic has brought everything virtual, for the most part. How do you foresee virtual leadership rising to the top end? And what would be some of your tips on how leaders can now excel in this new domain?

CL: That's an excellent question. I think when leaders were fully physically present with their teams, you just have an array of cues that you may not have in a virtual setting. So for example, I can see somebody's full body, and I can assess, you know, their body language, their tone, their eye contact. Now, in a Zoom meeting, you may just see my shoulders up. So I may present myself as kind of confident, but maybe my legs are crossed, and I'm actually kind of hunched over. And so you don't get the full experience of someone necessarily, you know, as much as you did when you have that full in person, or physically kind of together. So I think, as we think about the future of leadership, it will be incredibly important for leaders to be present. It's very easy to be in a team meeting and multitasking or be talking to somebody and not fully there. But truly try and connect with them and see what are they conveying in entirety? Not only what are they saying, but what is their body language thing? What a you know, what's going on with their tone behind the words that they're articulating? Making sure, how can I actually connect with people and make a dedicated effort to connect with my staff? Again, what's really going on with you celebrate successes, celebrate their birthday, demonstrate, say, how's your family doing? I think that's going to be really important if we are a bit disarmed, and we don't have access to the full picture anymore.

SC: That is fantastic. In what ways might you be able to interweave like the concept of virtual leadership, and really how to take that to the next level within the certificate program?

CL: That's an awesome question. I think the certificate program, as you mentioned, the first course really focuses on yourself. So it starts with foundational skills. And what's a good leader? What does it look like? And so from there, we can work on active listening, self assessment, self reflection, that's important. But then the second course in the program is team management, and this is where I think we can really tap into tying this into a virtual leadership of how do you fully engage an entire team? What does it look like? How do you build trust? Trust is an interesting concept because it's heavy from a psychological standpoint, right? We can say go complete the project, but it's do I actually trust my leader has the best intentions for me? And so I think the program acts as an excellent foundation and building those skills.

SC: Dr. Lawthor, this has been a fantastic conversation. I always love chatting with you. And I hope anyone that is viewing this video will really consider the Conscious Leadership and Team Management certificate program. We really try and dig into self reflection and take your leadership to the next level both in your personal answer professional life because leadership is not just in the workplace. And so we really appreciate you. We look forward to meeting you at some point and thank you for your consideration.

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