Bravery – or the lack thereof – has been highlighted on numerous occasions this year. When British Airways faced a catastrophic computer meltdown during the May bank holiday, it left many passengers stranded the world over. I wondered if it would be able to handle the situation in a compassionate way, focussing on customer’s wellbeing.
Unfortunately, the way things unfolded was so disastrous, some subsequently called for the “British” to be dropped from the airline’s name. If chief executive Alex Cruz had immediately and profusely apologised and told travellers the airline was ill equipped to handle a computer crisis of this magnitude, but was working to identify the problem and hoped to later make improvements, he might have had a handle on the situation.
Instead reports were dominated by a feeble line about a “power surge,” speculation that redundancies and outsourcing had contributed to the problem, and pictures of airports looking akin to refugee camps. It would have taken a lot of nerve for Cruz to admit the airline was at least partially at fault, but that bravery might have changed the tenor of what quickly escalated into a full scale customer-service and media crisis.
Perhaps Cruz was halted by a fear that many business owners and entrepreneurs have shared over the years – the feeling that the weight of responsibility for the success of the businesses’ they lead (and ultimately their employees) rests firmly, and often, heavily on their shoulders. When times are good, leaders revel in it.
They love the feeling of spearheading growing, dynamic organisations. It’s energising and exciting. Success breeds success and, as a leader, they take enormous pride, and pleasure, in being the person kicking off celebrations and reaping rewards as the business thrives – and they should, they deserve it.
However, when times are tough, the weight of that responsibility can have a serious impact on their ability to get the job done, not to mention their physical and mental health. I recall speaking with a successful leader who had recently been promoted to CEO. He confided to me that he was anxious about leading his team, because he knew he didn’t have all the answers.
The belief that as the head of an organisation you have to have all of the answers is the root of a huge amount of fear and anxiety, and it is completely needless. A good leader should know that they don’t have all of the answers; how could any one person? But what sets good leaders apart is that they are brave enough to admit this and ask for help. One moment of bravery can have a transformative effect.
Sometimes, as is the case with British Airways, that means admitting fault and asking for external client’s patience and other times it means admitting you need your team’s help to solve problems that the organisation is facing. Of course, that doesn’t mean that getting information or honest feedback from teams or indeed, customers, is an easy thing to do.
It takes a brave leader to open themselves up for criticism – no one finds it easy to hear what they’re doing wrong. I have found from years of experience, that if leaders are brave enough to be vulnerable enough to ask for honest feedback and ask the right questions, of the right people, in the right way, at the right time the rewards their businesses are undeniable.
But how can leaders do this? You need a structure and framework that:
• Is confidential and anonymous – so your team tell the truth without fear of retribution, rather than just saying what they think you want to hear.
• Enables you to ask the right questions at the right time – questions that are a pertinent to your specific organisation, are timely and based on the key opportunities and issues your business is facing.
• Enables you to interpret feedback – doing so in a way that means you can immediately hone in on areas that need improvement.
• Increasingly motivates, engages and empowers your team – they will take more personal ownership (where you want them to) for fixing what needs to be fixed and amplifying your organisation’s strengths.
It takes bravery to ask these questions, but when you do, you will receive feedback and insight that help you move your organisation forward. Every organisation has problems, and being brave enough to acknowledge this, and to get insight from those involved to craft workable solutions, is one of the most satisfying things you can do as a leader.
Being brave enough to open yourself up to criticism, so you can solve problems with insight and knowledge, is truly the practice of wise leadership.
Stefan Wissenbach, the CEO of Engagement Multiplier