Andrea T Edwards

What separates successful social leaders from the rest of the pack in the time of Covid-19?

Being in tune with your audience is always a critical part of effective social leadership. It’s particularly important right now in light of coronavirus-related disruption, economic turmoil, and the rapid change to all of our lives.

I’ve closely observed how people participate on social media for more than a decade, and currently I am noticing some good tendencies and, unfortunately, some bad ones.

This article aims to help contribute to the collective conversation in meaningful ways, and demonstrate how to serve your audience and solidify your social leadership for this time.

Initial reactions to the crisis I’ve observed on social media fell into the following very different camps.

Group 1: Flurry of activity

When the pandemic hit, livelihoods were shut off in an instant — gone, no money coming in — and in many countries, governments are still not stepping in to help entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, gig economy workers, and other vulnerable professionals.

As a result, professionals in this group turned quickly to online communication and they turned up the volume. Suddenly every subject under the sun was being turned into free Zoom calls, webinars, and more. The clamour was immediately overwhelming.

But it was also to be expected. Economic disruption on this scale is going to shake even the most stable of us to the very core.

Those fortunate not to be among the most vulnerable in this group, need to dig into their empathy reserves and understand that, when everything changes overnight, the above-mentioned people need time to adjust to a new normal.

We are all being called on to be more understanding of each other, especially when so many are simply seeking to shore up their livelihoods and create stability.

Group 2: Radio silence

On the other hand, business leaders working for large global and regional companies or in the public sector went quiet.

They pivoted internally because their priority had to be a focus on the right moves for their businesses to take, including defining their message to employees and the wider market, as well as determining how to get employees online. Their priority was working out what they needed to do immediately for employees, customers, partners, and stakeholders.

When it comes to social leadership, this group needed to take time to reflect before speaking out socially. This was especially critical for publicly listed companies. The message and approach needed to be well defined and planned to ensure against embarrassments for the business or misleading information for stakeholders.

However, some business leaders were not quiet. One of the roles of leaders in the hospitality and tourism sector — industries impacted immediately by the pandemic — has been to reassure and communicate honestly with all of their stakeholders.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson was highly praised for his authentic communication. A social leader knows that authenticity is critical, but is also keenly aware of when is the right time to speak. Timing is everything.

Group 3: Business as usual

We also have a group of professionals reacting as though the world hasn’t changed at all! While getting smaller as time goes on, this group looks disconnected from our combined reality. This approach is a big challenge to overcome from a reputation perspective.

We’ve also seen many professionals and businesses continuing with their planned social media messaging and advertising, rather than pressing pause to ensure they were adapting to what was going on around them. This lack of forward thinking could hurt them in the future too.

Again, it’s not hard to feel empathy for them. They’re just doing the best they can to hang on to stability during a crazy time for our world.

However it’s important to heed the lessons of this time. Participating appropriately, within the context of the extraordinary moment we’re experiencing, is critical for your credibility!

Social leadership is more important than ever – it is the only way we can communicate right now – and we owe it to our followers to provide inspiring and time-relevant social leadership.

Group 4: Tone deaf

Cold calling on social media has always been a curse (it’s something I wrote about in 2015), but it’s happening with greater frequency — have you noticed?

This does my head in. I will not do business with strangers. Ever.

Connect and pitch? Tell ‘em they’re dreaming….

So, in case you’re wondering, I am not looking for sales funnel building services or advice on being digital, or how to master video calls. And please, why the hell would I be looking for manufacturers of wool felt products in China? Yes, I was recently offered that. One look at my LinkedIn profile, with even a bit of reflection, would have cleared up whether I was a good target for such a pitch.

What annoys me about cold callers is they take my attention from messages that matter. I’m all for business development, but please reflect on and empathize with the person you are InMailing. If you don’t take the time to do this, you have a much greater chance of getting a negative response than a positive one #JustSayin.

Regardless, across all four categories, we have ample room for improvement and for empathy.

So, how do you go from good to great?

Even if we disagree with how people are currently participating on social media, let’s give everyone a bit of a break. Anyone born after 1918 has never lived through a crisis like this, and none of us have the experience or foresight to automatically know the right way to behave.

We’re ALL learning as we go.

And many of these lessons are sudden and harsh.

Mistakes are, and will continue to be made. It’s time to appreciate that many people are in survival mode, and the resulting stress might make it harder than usual to get things right.

So, let’s go gently in our criticisms.

At the same time, let’s be sure to think and reflect before we act or speak up. Haste is never worth it if it’s out of alignment with audience needs.

Step 1: Step back and make room for empathy

Here’s a good definition of empathy to ponder.

Andrea T Edwards

As we continue to navigate this crisis, our emotions will change and evolve. As the shock subsides, we’ll get more comfortable with new situations and start to get more active and innovative.

 Many are recognizing that life won’t be returning to normal anytime soon and that we need to adapt and move forward. We’ve got this one. Humans are good at adapting.

Step 2: Decide to be a social leader right now

What does it take to be a leader in a time of crisis? In a word, empathy. Effective leaders dig deep into their empathy buckets. They look around and ask of their audience:

  1. How are they feeling right now?
  2. What’s top of mind for them?
  3. What is their greatest challenge?
  4. Can I help them overcome this challenge?
  5. Is my usual focus relevant?
  6. Should I pivot to ensure I am being of service to my community during this time?

We must put ourselves in our audience’s shoes. Regardless of how we feel, regardless of how we are coping, successful communication is about being aligned to how they feel.

Putting yourself in your audience’s shoes is the center of any strategy for speaking up.

This is why empathy is critical.

Let’s expand on this. Over the last four weeks I’ve been doing global research, asking customers, peers, friends, and family how they’re feeling and what is top of mind for them. The insight I’ve gained from their responses can help you put yourself in the shoes of your audience too.

How we are reacting to the pandemic

Using what I gathered, I’ve outlined how people are feeling and what they’re concerned about right now. These responses paint a picture of basic fears, wants, needs, struggles, and hopes.

Fears

  1. Financial insecurity caused by job loss and pay cuts
  2. That their government can’t handle it
  3. Getting sick with COVID19 or any other sickness that needs hospitalization
  4. Scared that loved ones will get sick
  5. Scared of being unable see sick loved ones before they die or not being able to attend their funeral
  6. Fear for one’s emotional or physical safety in abusive home situations

One of the unspoken consequences of such fears is systemic stress and its neurological effects. People don’t feel safe. Our freeze-fight-flight mechanisms are kicking in, putting our amygdala into overdrive. It’s hard to make big decisions in such a state, because the brain isn’t actually functioning properly. I know it’s felt like my brain has been in pieces since this started!

Challenges

  1. Disappointment over canceled plans
  2. Difficulty focusing, especially if one is working from home
  3. Accepting the things we can’t change about the situation
  4. Struggling with self-honesty/awareness
  5. Overcoming feelings of helplessness
  6. Discipline: how to start the day off right and stay on track
  7. Making space to think and reflect
  8. Staying positive
  9. Finding space to share feelings
  10. Difficulty handling strong feelings in a healthy, constructive way
  11. Social media-based comparison of oneself to others
  12. Staying fit — body and mind
  13. Constant state of anxiety
  14. Physical challenges of working in the home environment — back aches, poor internet, etc.
  15. Attempting to parent, homeschool, and care for dependents while getting work done
  16. Feelings of inadequacy, self-pressure to be more productive when we just want to sleep
  17. Uncertainty about the future
  18. Excessive emotionality, big ups and downs
  19. Deep sadness, grief in the absence of normal channels and rites for expressing it
  20. Feelings of guilt and grief about human greed, selfishness, and inequalities laid bare by the pandemic
  21. Struggling with the pace of change
  22. Depression
  23. Sleep trouble — insomnia or excessive tiredness
  24. Over doing drinking, eating and other forms of self abuse
  25. Conflict and arguments due to being cooped up
Andrea T Edwards

 Additional challenges for parents and caregivers

  1. How to cope with the constant distractions/interruptions of children learning at home
  2. How to make this time a positive experience for children
  3. Marriage security/divorce
  4. Family clashes in isolation
  5. Fear of family members at risk
  6. How to keep children focused and learning
  7. How to keep children fit and let them release physical energy
  8. How to help children have a balanced relationship with screen-time and devices when their entire learning is online right now

Leaders are asking the following questions

  1. How do we cope when we need to be strong for others?
  2. How do we stand the uncertainty?
  3. How do we create a successful collaborative environment when our employees are working from home?
  4. How do I effectively communicate digitally?
  5. How can I be successful on video?
  6. What does it even mean to communicate “successfully” in a crisis? What role does authenticity need to play?
  7. How do I stay in touch without employees feeling I’m micromanaging them?
  8. What should I be asking my employees right now? How can I make sure they feel heard?
  9. How do I reassure my teams, even when I am not feeling reassured myself?
  10. How do I keep my team engaged and positive?
  11. How do we lead at a time when I don’t know where things are going?
  12. How can I take care of my employees’ mental health? How can I take care of my own?
  13. How do I adjust to working in a home environment, especially as it looks so unprofessional?
  14. Who can I speak to when I need to talk? Who can help me manage right now?

Without empathizing with what people are experiencing, it’s simply not possible to communicate well.

So, if all of this is what people are concerned with, what can you bring to them as a social leader? What are people craving in terms of leadership?

People would like:

  1. Help, clarity, wisdom
  2. Advice on where to access truth, especially with trust so damaged in society
  3. To create meaningful connections
  4. A sense of what “after” might look like
  5. To feel understood, to have the opportunity to share struggles and express emotions
  6. Practical advice on distance working and maintaining a normal routine when we all have different priorities right now
  7. A space to slow down in order to take a look, reflect, and come out of this difficult time stronger than before
  8. Advice on decision-making in difficult times and under stress
  9. Clear boundaries with peers and bosses
  10. Counsel on where to go for government assistance and other forms of help available to them
  11. To have fun, be distracted, have a laugh
Andrea T Edwards

With all this upheaval and change, people are eager to have positive insights on the future.

Leadership grounded in positivity promotes the following:

  1. Hope for a new future
  2. Positive reflection
  3. Opportunities for innovation
  4. A chance to build a sustainable world
  5. Reaching out, reaching in
  6. Valuing the gift of pain
  7. Creating goodwill and opportunities to help others
  8. A re-grounding in old skills from the past that can help people now
  9. Acknowledgement that the whole world is vulnerable, and embracing the opportunity for positive change
  10. Time for building and nurturing important relationships
  11. Building and nurturing a sense of community and connectedness
  12. A chance to focus on Ikigai
  13. Focusing on the future and a sense of purpose

There are so many different emotions coursing through each member of your audience.

You may have been though quite a few yourself. In fact, reading this may have brought a few back? Writing it here does for me! There are so many I can relate to. I’d love for you to drop me a comment if any of the above resonates with you right now?

Step 3: Take the pulse

Read through these lists and ask your audience how they are doing. Ask them what they need right now.

You might have a younger audience whose specific issues aren’t addressed above. You might be targeting older generations with yet another unique set of concerns.

The challenges faced by your audience might also vary from country to country, depending on your scope.

The most important aspect to social leadership is to know how your audience is feeling!

If you don’t feel comfortable asking them directly, use the findings I’ve provided above as a guide. It’s global, demographically diverse, and a fair reflection of the broad challenges we’re seeing around the world right now.

Stay active in observing the global conversation taking place across all social media channels too. It is the best place to get a pulse on how the world is feeling—at any time, not just during a crisis.

This is an essential skill of being a social leader, which is why you shouldn’t outsource your presence. Sure, get help with honing your voice. Editors are great, but you have to be personally and actively involved on social media to understand its power and to own your voice.

Once you’ve found the pulse, keep your finger on it to stay relevant to the people who look to you for leadership. The ability to observe and track conversations is a key part of a meaningful presence.

Our collective conversation is constantly evolving, and it’s one of the best sources for knowledge — and the best way to nourish your empathy as a leader.

Step 4: Know where you want to lead them

Start with focus. For now, if you can define a short-term focus, it will help your audience survive and thrive in the coming months. But remember, in order to be meaningful, your focus must be aligned to a challenge that your audience faces and that you have the experience or wisdom to address.

This means that if you really don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s best not to chime in and contribute to the Infodemic. Sharing poor quality information or misinformation does not add anything to the collective conversation — or your credibility.

If your intention is simply to be a hopeful, positive voice during dark times, that’s great. But your message must be in tune with the roller coaster of emotions people are feeling or you’ll risk seeming out of touch, which is poor positioning for a leader.

It’s a delicate balance getting it right, and that’s why we keep coming back to the centrality of empathy.

Here are some examples of focus

  • An educator on the pandemic — whether as an academic or as a professional who has dug deep and found reputable sources of information
  • A mental health professional who can help address the significant issues happening around the world
  • A beacon of positivity and inspiration — the world needs the sunshine people right now
  • A futurist leading your audience out the other side of the pandemic
  • A sales leader discussing the fine art of soft selling in hard times
  • A voice of calm wisdom
  • An economist helping make sense of navigating the economic crisis
  • A yoga passionista helping others to embrace a practice for health of body and mind
  • A practical leader speaking to employees directly, honestly, and reassuringly
  • An entertainer or a comedian — because laughter is an essential form of release
  • A strategist making sense of how a given profession or industry will transform out the other end of this crisis
  • An environmentalist or sustainability expert helping connect the dots between the pandemic and the climate crisis, as well as a road map to a new future
Andrea T Edwards

These are just a few of many approaches you could take, depending on your expertise, and we all have expertise! Sharing the journey of your experience is equally valid, if you don’t think you have a topic to focus on.

For example: My personal focus is to be a guide for business professionals wanting to show up as social leaders with powerful voices that matter. That’s always my focus, but it’s even more in tune with what is happening right now. That’s why I’m writing this article.

There are as many ways to participate as there are people participating, so when you work out your focus, it’s time to show up as a unique voice sharing your own ideas and other compelling ideas to help your audience through stress and uncertainty.

Social leadership is always about service to an audience. If you seize this opportunity and get it right, you’ll come out of this global crisis with more momentum and credibility than ever.

Step 5: Be clear and real about your intentions

If you take on this social leadership challenge, your message must come from a place of deep meaning for you. If you’re in it for the attention, your words will ring hollow. You may become a star, but you won’t truly shine. Seek to connect deeply to heart and mind. Your power lies in combining both.

Prior to this pandemic, there was too much focus on chasing quick wins, taking short cuts, focusing on vanity metrics, or advice to churn out videos in under two minutes. I’ve always seen little worth in the false structures we’ve been building and the executive teams I work with agree. I’ve long taken a stand against this way of using social media. Now is the time for a new paradigm.

We must act as though the meaning we give this moment will change lives.

So please, set powerful intentions for the changes you want to drive out into the world, and be very clear about the audience you want to influence.

Social leadership is empathy-driven and audience-focused

Everyone’s audience is based on who they are and the position they hold. It could be clients, consumers, employees, shareholders, partners, your community, peers, or broader society. Clarity about audience is more important now than ever.

Being in alignment with the needs of your audience is always the critical success factor of social leadership. However, many will say this is not what they see on social channels, and they’re right. It’s not the majority – yet!

But such meaning and connection is the true potential of social leadership, which has been my message and crusade for years.

Social leadership requires audience focus, intention, attention to the global conversation, and active participation on the social channels important to you and your audience.

Use this chance to be a beacon of hope during dark times.

Be the reassuring leader your community needs.

Be a voice of calm in the storm.

We can all shine right now, but not on the strength of our own ego. Social leadership brilliance has always been about serving an audience and making their lives better.

Will one silver lining from this pandemic be a revolution in social leadership? That glimmer of hope keeps me going. I think we might finally wake up to this truth.

What form will your social leadership take? Now is your time to reflect—and shine. Let me know what you think in the comments?

Cheers

Andrea

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I believe it’s time for all of us to embrace our voice and embrace the future. We do this by working and living ‘out loud’ with meaning, intention, integrity and by being true to ourselves. If you own your voice, you will own your future.

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