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The Lost Leader’s Handbook: Ten pointers on how to deal with breaking point, SA style

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Kerry Morris is the CEO of recruitment and labour services agency Tower Group.

A leader’s guide to what really happens when business leaders are expected to save their people, save their business, save their country, rewrite policies, practise empathy, adjust protocols, go remote, return to work, unmute, mute, unmute, check on the kids, check on Eskom, meet targets, pay salaries, fire for theft, and still make it home in time for supper.

This is the leader’s life today — and we’re all a little lost. There is a real struggle going on for leaders in the Covid-19 climate. The road is hard and nasty and it’s whipped with anxiety — and no one’s talking about it. 

What happens when leaders don’t know the way? What happens when they’re tired of finding the way and they’re wired with everyone demanding of them to build a new way? This is what happens: 

“I’m done!” That’s what I said a few weeks ago when one more person asked me if they could use their Covid-19 leave (and not their annual leave) to work from home with their kids. I snapped. I saw red. More like crimson — with a psycho dagger in the air and a lot of blood. A lot.

“I’m done!” 

In my moment of breaking point I grabbed my bag, stormed out the door, switched my phone off, blocked my social media pages (okay, not really, but nearly), considered driving my car through the ocean… to the Maldives, swore at my steering wheel and decided it was all just too much.

Since the horrific turn of our lives in March 2020, something happened to all business leaders in South Africa and the world — we were called to serve. We were handed a mandate which we somehow “forgot we had signed” (maybe back in 1939?), that said: From now on you are responsible for your employees’ health, survival and for keeping them safe and comfortable while we navigate modern history’s most devastating global pandemic. And what did all the leaders do in the whole wide world? The same thing any upstanding, reputable business chiefs would do — we accepted. 

We took up the challenge and we accepted the paperwork, the business knocks, the bank negotiations, the months and months of over-communication and policy changes, the website updates, the health and wellness expenses, 1,000 bottles of sanitiser, 20 thermometers, the technology upgrades and the 10 new acronyms that had something to do with insurance funds and loans. And then came other things we accepted: the anxiety, for starters, followed by the sorrow, the worry, the panic and the silent killer question — how will I keep my business surviving? 

None of us really had time to figure out the next steps; we all took our survival gear and surged into battle. While we were so busy in support and survival mode and stepping up to resilience in the face of adversity, we lost our way. But more than this, we’ve lost our nerve, we doubt our decisions and we carry around an obligatory heaviness that we have just come to accept — because it’s expected of us. 

And our employees are now expecting the same. For many of us, our people have always come first — it’s what most business cultures are built on, but the lines have become blurred — and no one’s talking about it. 

While Covid-19 has forced leaders to become more compassionate, more empathetic, more adjusted in terms of our personal lives, there is a dangerous push-factor brewing between employer and employee and it’s testing our tolerance — (and has forced some of us to write a handbook!). 

Today, we’re battling with 102 new employee questions, adjusted permissions, late arrivals (because we’re so used to being online) and unusual leave requests ad nauseam. Could it be we’re seeing the rise of another pandemic in our organisations: ES (Expectation Syndrome)? 

The more we do, the more we are expected to do. The more we adjust, the more we are expected to adjust — and so the vicious cycle goes, until one day “you’re done”.

The truth is there was so much more that happened than a global pandemic, the day CEOs and MDs and founders were expected to “make right” for their employees from the outside — and now, 16 months later it’s hurting, from the inside — and no one’s talking about it. 

While storming out of the office isn’t the answer, neither is saying yes to every team whim. While sharing with you right now that I would rather be on an island drinking wine all day isn’t my most exemplary admission as a leader, nor is changing my business entirely to suit a pandemic. As leaders, we need to redraw the line. 

Since it’s all left to the leaders, it’s time we reclaimed our way and our expectations of our employees and… of ourselves. There’s a real truth about what’s happening for leaders in business right now — what we’re going through, why we’re going through it and how many more levels do we have to navigate before we all land up in leader rehab (wait, is there a leader rehab?!) 

So, here’s 10 Leadership Steps to combat ES for those of us who have lost their way (and maybe their minds): 

Redraw the line

Covid or no Covid you are still in charge. Your employees will always expect you to be the boss, so be the boss — don’t be the friend. It’s your business right as a leader to draw the boundary line, and not feel guilty about it. 

‘Yes’ is not a free pass

Remember the word “no”? Of course you do. Too many yeses are fun for some, but not for you — and not for the business either. It’s not your responsibility to always say yes. No is still an option in 2021. See number 1!    

It’s not a popularity contest

You’re running a business, not a talent pageant. It’s okay to be the wolf in the den and risk being unfriended by your staff in the best interest of your business. Besides, friends don’t pay the salaries. 

Cut the drama before the budget 

Policy alterations usually follow on from some drama — economic drama, worldwide drama, personal dramas. So cut the drama. Decide for yourself what feels like hype and what feels like a real problem. Spend time (and money) adjusting to the real problems.  

Build your Advantage Radar

Start flexing your bull**** muscle. Everyone and their aunty will have a new story to tell you about how uncomfortable their lives are and just how much more comfortable it would be if you could help them… uh uh — stop right there. 

Lean on a leader

You are not alone. Connect with other business owners in your circle, for advice and support. Start a leader group or call your mentor. In times like these you have permission to offload — so start talking about it.  

Take a course in EI

If you don’t know what EI stands for, take a course. Emotional intelligence is an undisputed leadership skill in our times, and forever more. This will help you manage your teams better and present you with alternatives to most human situations. In fact, while you’re at it, send your employees on an EI course too. Everyone wins.  

Switch off

You’re not always available. No, you’re not. The end. 

Mull before you mandate

Just because we were on Level 2 a couple of weeks ago and now we are on Level 4 does not mean you are expected to keep changing your policy. Give yourself permission to reassess your strategy each time — and sit on it for a while. A week or two if need be. Decide what will benefit your company — and if it requires no further changes, then that’s okay. See number 1 again.

Refill your cup 

Refilling is a leader’s policy too! Leave the office early or take a day off. You need it, you’ve earned it. Go get a massage, spend time with someone you love, have your hair done, sleep in, travel to the bush. Whatever it means to fill up, do it for you.       

None of us has this Leadership-2021 thing figured out yet, but what we do know is that we’re not just leaders, we’re people too: we’re also begging for help, we also want to ask questions, we also want to take leave. We also don’t sleep at night, and we feel for our people, and we grieve for all the good things we’ve lost. It’s time we reclaim our leadership — or grab the handbook, whichever comes first. DM/BM   

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  • What virtuous business leaders we have.

    “For many of us, our people have always come first — it’s what most business cultures are built on”

    If that’s not a thick moist slice of self-delusion, I don’t know what is. Most business cultures are built on the principle of profitability for owners, to which end human resources are exploited.

    Sure, you’re people too. By all means practice self-care. And also acknowledge reality. To have a care for the humans you employ is to clear a bar that’s almost subterranean, it’s so clearly aligned with your own self-interest.

    When you can take a week off, get your hair done, travel to the bush and so forth to de-stress, you’ll understand a doleful reception for your song of everyday heroism in trying times.

    • What a cynical, uninformed opinion. Many business leaders have taken care of staff out of compassion – not just for the sake of the bottom line. Spare a thought for business leaders who run sustainable non-profit companies. We have to operate at a profit because we don’t get handouts. The profits go into our projects, not into our pockets. We’ve had to cope with Covid-19 and all the attendant changes, challenges and losses listed above, PLUS deal with unreasonable, income-crippling govt regulations, AND as non-profits we were not eligible for the loan scheme AND – to add insult to injury – we had to become compliant with the POPI Act (and all the red tape that goes with it) in the midst of it all! A heartless imposition by bureaucrats who have no clue what it takes to run a business, at a time when we should be giving all our attention to survival.

      Despite the challenges, we and many other business leaders have genuinely cared for our staff. It has been incredibly demanding beyond the point of burn-out and I’m grateful that someone has spoken about it.

      Thank you Kerry Morris for this article which acknowledges the demands on business leaders. We accept them because saving our businesses is not just about our saving own skins but about serving all the staff and clients that depend on their survival.

  • Not sure that “exploitation “ is the intent of the vast majority of business owners, Patrick. Financial gain is the reward for taking responsibility for initiatives, taking risk and providing livelihoods for others.
    Relationships with those who you work with, should merely be a reflection of who you are as a human being – that simple.

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