Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all, and my dear, I’m still here.” So begins Stephen Sondheim’s hymn to survival, immortalised by Elaine Stritch in his wonderful musical Follies. It’s a line that speaks to this moment. We are battered and bruised by all that COVID-19 has thrown at us, its effect intensified by our shock that it descended so fast from a clear blue sky. But we are still here.
Hope and fear compete for our hearts. The animal spirits of capitalism are reviving. Stock markets have bounced back. A vaccine may not be far away. A tsunami of cash has surged from the vaults of Government and central banks. Still, nobody expects anything but tough times ahead, as furlough schemes end, unemployment rises, and businesses make fundamental decisions about who they will need and how they will operate in the future.
“We have nothing to fear, but fear itself,” said President Franklin D Roosevelt. He knew instinctively what the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman proved decades later, that humans are hardwired to value the avoidance of loss more highly than the prospect of gain. Right now, in the battle between fear and hope, fear is playing a strong hand. Polling by YouGov in August shows that 92% of us expect unemployment to rise, and 62% fear being laid off. In more than the obvious ways, this has consequences for the way law firm leaders frame their task.
Bruce MacEwen recently put it well: “Critical is recognising that whereas ‘leadership’ six months ago was defined as and viewed through the lenses of strategy, business, culture, and people, now it’s as much or more about morale, which means truly listening and connecting with people, and admitting your own vulnerabilities.”
Raising morale is easy and obvious to say; harder to do. We can’t all be Churchill. But in the workplace, we are motivated far more by actions and interactions than stirring speeches. In firms where morale is high, leaders behave in clearly observable ways.
They make a point of recognising their colleagues and demonstrating that their efforts are valued. This is not really about money. Pay is important, but warmly expressed recognition of effort and achievement matters more. A handwritten note saying “thank you” can be immensely powerful. They celebrate small wins as well as the big, and make sure they are always encouraging. Nothing is more demoralising than: “That was a good job, well done, but you still need £10k to make target this month.” They seek the views not just of direct reports, but of colleagues at every level. A good question is, “What would you do in this business if you had my job?” When they are given good ideas, they act on them and make sure they give credit at the time, not months later in a performance review.
They show their team trust and respect by sharing information with them, especially financial information about how the firm is performing. Sometimes I have an uphill struggle persuading clients of the value of transparency. Being defensive or secretive is a big mistake. As Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, said, “The more they know, the more they’ll understand. The more they understand, the more they’ll care. Once they care, there’s no stopping them.”
Good leaders know the importance of clarity, especially in hazardous times. Nothing breeds fear more than uncertainty, but at the same time, people will deal well with extraordinary levels of difficulty if they are fully informed, see that their leaders are being straight with them and have bought into a well articulated strategy to overcome it. One never wants to be like the army officer of whom it was once said at appraisal: “His men would follow him anywhere, if only out of a sense of morbid curiosity.”
It’s lonely at the top
Finally, as MacEwen says, good leaders are unafraid to admit that sometimes they feel vulnerable. Too often, vulnerability is dismissed as something shameful and weak. But it is a natural state, the hallmark of a thinking, sentient person. Morale remains high, even in great adversity, when leadership is authentic. People can smell it when their leaders are feigning strength and spinning them a line to keep them happy.
Leaders have an obligation to themselves, as well as the business, to care for their own morale. Going it alone is folly. Wise leaders cultivate a personal board from inside and outside the business, with whom they can be completely honest, share their doubts and who will give them fearless, objective counsel.
Few phrases lift the spirit of leaders and the led more than “We are all in this together, and together we will overcome.” There will never be a better time to prove it.
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide
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