During his tenure as CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates shared a key and timeless leadership principle especially applicable for the Covid-19 era. The billionaire and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation stated:
As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.
Now that leaders everywhere have been forced to pivot their organizations to remote work, one thing is true now more than ever: Leaders set themselves apart by effectively empowering people in times of uncertainty.
Empowerment comes in many forms. Leaders should -- and many are -- doing whatever it takes to protect employees and the business, being empathetic to meet people's needs, and being mindful of the mental health needs of their team members.
There are countless ways to empower your workers these days. Having collected hundreds of anecdotes and sifted through the research, three particularly stand out.
1. Put your employees first
Every leader's role right now involves proactively responding daily to the challenges facing their people. Whether it's meeting to discuss steps to protect employees or the business, good leaders are being empathetic to meet people's needs. They are being mindful of the mental health needs of their team members and their families as social isolation, potential ill health, economic hardships, and other uncertainties of life weigh on people in unique ways.
2. Encourage mental health days
Can you think of a time when so many stressful events occurred so close together, including, yes, the election? The American Psychological Association noted that the 2020 election has become a significant source of stress for more than two-thirds (68 percent) of American adults.
The first step in helping employees manage the overwhelming stress of 2020 is to offer days off to tend to mental health. But leaders must set the example first and actively promote when they are taking a mental health day to show employees it's OK to do the same.
According to Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers, "When employees see leaders and managers take days off specifically for a mental health break, it provides a form of unspoken permission for employees to do the same without fear of repercussions."
3. Empower people to be human
People are emotional creatures and these are emotional times. Leaders should ease off on seeking perfection in their employees and instead provide an environment where workers can express themselves openly.
"Emotional vulnerability is one of the most important qualities one can have as a leader," Jason Tan, CEO of fraud prevention company Sift, told me. Tan was raised to keep the emotional parts of himself closed off from others and, as a result, often doubted himself as a leader. "Our jobs make up a large portion of our lives, and to turn off your emotions for eight hours every day invites emotional disconnectedness in all aspects of life, and undermines self-confidence," he said.
Empowering employees to be their true selves -- emotions included -- is a fundamental way to build psychological safety and develop trust. Sometimes this means being honest about struggles and shortcomings, or simply being flexible for employees to do the same.