In normal times, leadership is defined by a series of small moments: Suggestions. Corrections. Advice. Instructions. A quiet word here, a gentle nudge there.
Because the best leaders walk beside, and sometimes even behind, the people they lead. Not in front.
Except in times of crisis. That's when people not only expect but desire leadership that is calm yet determined, collaborative yet decisive, humble yet inspiring.
Hold that thought.
I have a fairly big network, so when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread I asked people to send me (non-confidential) examples of how bosses, CEOs, startup founders, etc. communicated with their teams and customers.
The rallying cries. The "business not as usual" speeches. The "here's how we will respond to the crisis" emails.
Most were terrible. Not because they were insincere.
But because they lacked the power of little voice.
In movies, little voice is what happens onscreen. Take the scene where Andy tries to fight off the Sisters in Shawshank Redemption. What happens onscreen is little voice.
Big voice is Red's voiceover. Big voice is Red saying, "I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that... but prison is no fairy-tale world."
Little voice is action. Big voice is commentary that provides perspective, interpretation, and meaning.
Nearly all of the forty-plus leadership rallying cries I saw stayed almost exclusively in big voice: Expressing concern, stating a commitment to safety, describing the commitment to minimize the impact on employees, customers, suppliers, etc.
In short, saying all the right things.
The problem is, during a crisis the "right things" tend to sound even more boilerplate than usual. Declaring determination, commitment, and resolve in the face of a crisis? Those things are a given.
For example, one email included the line, "We will do everything we possibly can to keep work hour reductions to a minimum and avoid layoffs."
Imagine you're an employee. Does that sentence provide reassurance? Nope. You're worried, justifiably so... and platitudes, no matter how well-meaning, won't make you feel any less anxious.
At that moment, you also need to hear little voice. You also need to hear about action.
You need, "We're going to re-assign five employees to three projects we're pulling up from the third quarter. We're offering some of our services at cost to two of our biggest customers to boost cash flow. We're going to..."
You get the point. Big voice creates perspective, but in a time of crisis, your employees already have plenty of perspective. The last thing they need is more perspective.
They need plans. They need to know what you will do. They need to know what they can do.
Big voice is great for declaring a mission, or describing a vision.
Big voice is great when you're Steve Jobs saying, "Here's to the crazy ones... because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."
But words alone, no matter how inspiring, won't change the world. Action changes the world.
During times of crisis, people already know their why. What they really want to know -- what they really need to know -- is how.