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What Does Practical Leadership Look Like in Tough Times?

In a post-COVID world, the workplace needs leaders who can guide, direct and support their employees in genuine, concrete ways. Professionals also want leaders who demonstrate in both their words and actions that they value their employees and the work that they do. Why? Because many people feel disconnected from their leadership, and even from what is going on in their organizations after several years of working in a less-connected environment with numerous challenges.

So, what do great leaders do that sets them apart when faced with the need to help their employees re-connect and re-engage? They focus on taking meaningful steps that are visible and make a difference to the people they lead, including:

  • Recognizing people other than themselves, and publicly attributing accomplishments to those professionals – Too often, leaders describe their team or company’s achievements in terms of what the leader has done. But a stronger and more compelling way of highlighting success is through sharing examples of those who have been key in getting there. For example, GSK CEO Emma Walmsley recently introduced a new video series, shared both within the company and externally, intended to “shine a spotlight on innovation and the people who make it happen.” Her latest conversation included a data management quality lead, an engineer, and a manufacturing apprentice, talking about how they lead, learn, and make a difference in their company. Putting the focus on others is a great way of sharing specifics around the importance of individual contributions.

  • Communicating honestly and openly about tough issues – When Bob Iger, the former CEO of Disney, returned to the company in 2022, it was clear that he had been re-hired to make changes. But rather than letting people wonder what those changes might be, Iger has been up front about many of them, even when they might be unpopular with some employees: e.g., announcing that he was not reversing a decision to move several thousand jobs from California to Florida, and requiring hybrid workers to return to the office four days each week. He also announced those decisions after holding town hall meetings, seeking input, explaining his reasoning, and acknowledging that “we’re not going to make everyone happy all the time, and we’re not going to try to.” Not every decision is an easy or popular one, but bringing people into the decision-making process and being transparent with them goes a long way to building trust in leaders.

  • Supporting and empowering individuals and teams to do their best work – Believing in your people and showing them that you do, even in the face of significant risk, is a critical aspect of real leadership. Katherine Graham inherited the leadership of her family’s publishing company in the 1960s, never having expected to take on that role. She knew that she needed smart editors and reporters, and focused on hiring the right people who could transform the Washington Post, and ultimately move it from being a regional newspaper to world-wide recognition as a leading news source. When the paper’s journalists came to her with stories detailing the political scandal of Watergate and the evidence of the Pentagon Papers showing that the U.S. government had misled the public about the war in Vietnam, she considered carefully the risks of publishing, including that it would involve defying federal court orders. Ultimately, however, she believed in the team she had assembled, met with them, listened to them, and trusted them to have done the right work to support their reporting and the importance of that work to the freedom of the press. Supporting the people you have put in place to do the work that you know they do well, and not micromanaging them, is a hallmark of good management.

  • Acknowledging mistakes and taking responsibility for them – It’s easy to blame the economy, political issues, or market trends when a decision goes awry and employees lose trust in a leader. Harder still is for leaders to admit that they personally screwed up. But in 2022, when Twilio announced the beginning of substantial layoffs, CEO Jeff Lawson began his announcement to employees by saying “I’m not going to sugarcoat things,” and admitting that the company had grown too quickly “without enough focus on our most important company priorities. I take responsibility for those decisions, as well as the difficult decision to do this layoff.” Rebuilding from a workforce reduction takes time, and it isn’t easy. Yet the leaders who can avoid blaming others, or deflecting attention from their role in the downsizing, are the ones that demonstrate that they are aware of the responsibility that they hold. By admitting that they are human and err like everyone else, they become more authentic and real to the people they are leading.

If you’re a leader in your organization seeking to motivate it and move it forward, tangible and practical actions are key. It’s not enough to speak about the things that matter. You have to apply them in your daily work so that people can see evidence of how they matter in their companies. As we all continue to adapt to new ways of working and different methods of engaging, the consequences of real-world leadership are all the more important.

Laura Terrell is an executive coach with over twenty-five years of experience as a legal and business leader. She offers an insider’s perspective for business, legal and corporate professionals, working to help her clients to improve and achieve success in their work lives. Prior to coaching, she was a Special Assistant to the President at the White House, a senior-level appointee at the U.S. Department of Justice, an equity partner in two large, global law firms, and in-house counsel at a publicly traded company. Laura has also led and managed teams of people across multiple countries, serving as a top advisor to many Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies. Partnering with her clients, she enjoys helping them reach their goals and build confidence in their careers. Learn more about Laura and follow her blog at



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