On December 30, 2021, I along with millions of televisions viewers were glued to the news as wildfires raged through parts of Boulder County, Colorado. The Marshall Fire was nothing like the State had ever seen. Residential developments were obliterated, as the blaze was being fueled by the equivalent of category 3 hurricane winds. It was just horrific. I was scared for the safety of so many people and, in fact, my own neighborhood was under a pre-evacuation alert. But as I continued to watch news updates throughout the day and evening, something else struck me. In the midst of such a dire emergency, I was moved by and in awe of the leadership skills demonstrated in those press conferences by Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. He was a rock.
I know very little about Sheriff Pelle or his career. But what I can tell you is, on that day, he delivered a masterclass in leadership. I talk about – and coach – leadership skills all the time, but it is usually more in the context of leading in everyday terms and operations rather than in crisis management scenarios. So, Sheriff Pelle got me thinking, how do you learn to be an effective leader for those times when the sky is actually falling?
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG IN YOUR BUSINESS
I have personally witnessed negative business situations, like say a technology breach or systems failure, in which some team members run around like proverbial chickens with their heads cut off. It is my impression that those folks perhaps confuse reactive signaling and tail-chasing with proactive problem solving and effective effort. That somehow they believe noise and even chaos are just as effective as clear headedness and strategy. A true leader, on the other hand, is the person who is not running around addled by uncertainty, but rather one who implicitly understands panic will never turn things around any faster.
I believe many business owners got a crash course in crisis leadership throughout the many months of COVID. Most were faced daily with an onslaught of challenges such as shifting government requirements, mandatory shutdowns, waning workforce enthusiasm, problematic supply chain and vendor issues – just a relentless list of difficult and pressing dynamics.
I would dare say that there is not a single business owner out there today that didn’t evolve in their leadership skills over the last couple of years. At least I hope not.
BACK TO BOULDER
Leadership during emergencies that pose immediate danger is a little different. In crises like these, something happens that requires a need to react and address in an aggressively timely manner. In these situations, there is really no time to decide what type of leader one wants to be or should be. Rather, these moments are when true leaders, not unlike Clark Kent, reveal themselves.
Watching coverage of the Marshall Fire, I noted how Sheriff Pelle’s strong leadership skills manifested in so many ways. Like most great leaders, he seemed to embody both internal and external strength. He displayed enormous empathy while maintaining an almost encyclopedic understanding of all the moving parts of the crisis. He exuded no signs of panic, only urgency and concern. He stepped up with compassion, control, humility, and heart. And that is just what I could see on camera. I can only assume all Pelle’s underlings and associates mirror these sentiments. Because true leadership isn’t isolated to a single event or even a series of events. True leadership is really almost a personality trait.
But it is one that can be developed.
HOW TO ENHANCE YOUR LEADERSHIP SKILLS
The first step to becoming a better, more effective leader is understanding your natural leadership style and your leadership baseline. If I asked you to rate your current leadership skills from 1-10, what score would you give yourself? What score do you think your team would give you? Because whether you like it or not, your self-assessed leadership skills count little compared to how well your leadership resonates with those around you.
So great leadership starts with self-reflection and perhaps identifying leadership situations in which you did really well and others where you could have done better. Next you can turn to trusted colleagues – or your peer advisory board – for some honest discussions regarding your leadership style, strengths, and weaknesses.
Other characteristics that support and enhance your leadership capabilities include:
- True empathy.
- Enhanced listening skills.
- Ability for agility.
- Vision sharing.
- Creating clear expectations.
- Effective communication skills.
- Transparency and connection.
It is true, not everyone was born to be a leader and certainly not to the extent that Sheriff Pelle is. But I would argue that every business owner who wants to run and grow their business should consider leadership development, in both themselves and their management team, as a key component to success.
And remember this. Great leadership is not always about managing those big blazes, but rather one’s ability to lead others through all the little fires inherent in running a business.
Blair Koch is the CEO of TAB Denver West, a TAB CEO Advisory Board Facilitator, and a Business Ownership Lifecycle Coach. Blair has spent most of her career helping small business owners achieve their personal and professional goals. She also hosts the Best Businesses in Denver podcast.