What it means to lead in the moment

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Would you ever want to be a world leader?  

How would it feel to be constantly under scrutiny? The eyes of the world watching your every move, just waiting for you to slip up, say something wrong or contradictory, landing yourself in hot water, not to mention in the headlines or on the front pages of every newspaper. 

It would be a pretty tough gig. 

Anyone can sit back and criticize a leader for the way they handled a particular situation. It’s easy to say, “I can’t believe he reacted like that” or “Did you see how she avoided the question?”. But unless you happen to be a current or former world leader reading this post, you really have no idea what it would feel like to carry all that responsibility on your shoulders, not to mention knowing exactly how you would react if you found yourself in the same situation. 

I’ll never forget how the media slammed former President George W. Bush for how he first responded to hearing that New York was under attack on September 11th, 2001. Closer to home, who could forget the backlash towards our own former Prime Minister for taking a family vacation while the country was literally burning? There was criticism from the media and the general population of pretty much every country in the world for how their leaders handled the pandemic and lockdowns. Gosh there’s even viral commentary taking (social) media by storm for how King Charles keeps losing his cool with pens less than a month into his reign. 

You might think you would react differently, but you really have no idea how you might respond to a terror threat or pandemic. 

Stepping off the world stage for a moment, and into the slightly more familiar confines of a regular workplace, for many leaders, it’s still not always easy to know exactly how they might react in certain situations. 

From personal experience, over the years, I found myself having to communicate some very difficult messages to my teams including office closures not to mention complete company shutdowns. And whilst I may have been fully prepared for what I had to say, and how I would say it, to be honest, I was never completely sure how I would respond to the reactions of my team members in the moment. 

Understanding how to respond to a situation you may not be fully prepared for is a critical trait for every leader. 

In fact, research has revealed that the ability to ‘lead in the moment’ (also referred to as centeredness) is the most important attribute for inspirational leadership and a trait that most surveyed employees admire in their own leaders. 

Without wanting to scare any new or aspiring leaders, do you feel you are suitably prepared to think on your feet and respond eloquently in every situation? 

As part of a leadership coaching program I have been facilitating, one leader recently asked me if I could sit in on one of his remote team meetings. Of course, I agreed. 

He introduced me to his team at the start, and from my perspective (as an observer) everything was going well until just before the end of the meeting. He had announced a few new initiatives and had then asked the team if they had any questions. After a few seconds he said, “Right, I’ll take it that silence means everyone’s happy”, to which one of the team members then came off mute and said, “Silence definitely doesn’t mean we’re all happy. You’ve just given us a lot to process”.  

I was shocked by how the leader reacted to this. He snapped at the team member in front of everyone else, got extremely defensive before abruptly wrapping up the Zoom meeting. 

I waited a few minutes before I gave him a call. He was mortified. He told me that he couldn’t understand what had just happened. He explained that he literally felt himself snap and couldn’t stop himself even though he knew he was shattering his credibility right there in front of his team. He was so embarrassed. 

I let him get everything off his chest and then I just let the silence sit. 

“I guess in our next session we should probably focus on how to lead in the moment”, he said. 

When we caught up for our next coaching session, we covered quite a few topics, many of which have been written about in this forum before. 

Leading in the moment isn’t easy. 

After all, you’ll never really know when you might find yourself put on the spot, challenged, or simply in an unfamiliar situation outside your comfort zone. But the more you are prepared for how you might handle yourself in such moments, the more credible you will be in the eyes of your team members. 

We recently touched on the importance of stepping up in times of uncertainty or ambiguity. Whilst this piece was more aligned to leadership in a broader VUCA context, every leader should be prepared for how they might react in a personally challenging moment (such as the scenario above).

Whether in a boardroom, on a Zoom call, during a performance review, or even simply walking around the office, you never know when you might be caught off guard. 

This is where emotional intelligence and the power of self-awareness comes into play. As we’ve mentioned previously, while studies show that people with a high level of self-awareness typically become better leaders, research states that while most leaders will say they are self-aware, self-awareness is, in fact, a very rare quality. 

Off the back of self-awareness, one of the most important attributes for leading in the moment is self-regulation. 

At a high level, self-regulation is about displaying calming behaviour in front of your team members, regardless of external challenges. 

Whilst letting your impulses take over and projecting your own anxiety onto others isn’t a very conducive trait of an emotionally intelligent leader, projecting a calm and mature demeanor and acting rationally, particularly when you feel yourself under pressure, will certainly stand you in good stead. 

Another key attribute when it comes to leading in the moment is active listening

For any leader, part of active listening is not just the ability to understand what your team member is saying, but it’s also the intrinsic ability to pick up on the nuances of the unspoken word – what they might not be saying, or what for whatever reason they may have intentionally chosen not to share with you. This is exactly what was taking place in the team meeting I observed. The silence (the unspoken word) had a very different meaning to what the leader had felt at the time.  

One final point I covered in my coaching session was that by ensuring your people feel heard is also a way to create a safe space in your working environment, and that creating a safe space is another way to effectively lead in the moment. 

Whenever you find yourself in a slightly challenging situation, put yourself in the other person’s (or group of people’s) shoes.

This is another aspect of emotional intelligence that might help you ground yourself before you react. Try not to lose your cool in front of the team; try not to appear too defensive; but at the same time don’t pretend the confrontation or unexpected scenario isn’t real by hiding from it. 

Shift your response from negative to positive and try to maintain an even keel as much as possible. 

There are so many situations you might find yourself in when your ability to lead in the moment is tested.

For example, if in the middle of a critical project a key player shares with you that they are struggling with their mental health and need some time out; as in the scenario above, you receive public backlash to a key initiative during a team meeting; you receive news that you know will disappoint, shock, or scare your team; or you observe inappropriate behaviour in your workplace. 

Leading in the moment involves observing, thinking, processing, and acting/re-acting in the moment, too.  

There’s no script for how to respond to every interaction you have as a leader. With that in mind, leaders who want to thrive in situations where they are pushed well beyond their comfort zone need to develop the ability to sense and seize opportunities as they emerge while still remaining authentic and influential under pressure. 

Remember, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders understand the importance of leading in the moment. 

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