Building resilience and motivation through turbulence

Liza Bortnikova, COO and co-founder, AI Digital. (Photo used with permission)
Liza Bortnikova, COO and co-founder, AI Digital. (Photo used with permission)

How to lead in times of war.

Against the backdrop of a number of global conflicts, most recently the Israel-Gaza war, business leaders face mounting challenges in helping their teams feel both supported and motivated. 

I vividly recall my own experience leading my Russia-based team out of the country and harm’s way at the start of the Russia-Ukraine war almost two years ago. 

As a company leader responsible for employees spread across Russia, I moved quickly to plan an evacuation strategy that would prove to be the most traumatic and difficult experience of our lives at the onset of war. My team and I made it safely out of the country, but I’m reminded of how my leadership journey took a drastic turn instantly. 

In these moments, leaders need to focus on their teams’ needs. For me, this required a level of empathy and vulnerability that might feel uncomfortable, but is necessary in difficult times. 

Here are lessons I learned that can help leaders form adversity-tested bonds with their employees. 

Build trust with empathy and transparency

During a crisis, employees may experience anxiety, fear and stress. As a leader, it's crucial to offer emotional support and create a safe space for team members to express their concerns. 

When the threat of war loomed in Russia, we found ourselves consumed by the challenges that awaited us. Concerns regarding the well-being of our loved ones, sanctions against Russian citizens, limited access to foreign banks for those of us with Russian passports and Russian-issued bank cards – it all contributed to a growing sense of turmoil. 

In these moments of crisis, companies need to fill the necessary gaps to meet their employees’ needs. If you’re a leader who feels unprepared, I understand. But establishing a level of trust with your team can allow you to work together in a highly stressful situation. Strong leadership hinges on transparent communication, and leaders need to be open and honest about why certain decisions are being made. 

Be cognizant of symptoms that can arise from traumatic experiences

Employees can feel a range of emotions after divisive events, including fear, anger, devastation and anxiety. Leading requires patience. You should be their North Star and implement proven ways to support them during political and social unrest. In the past 10 years, there has been a continual rise of mental health awareness, with almost 42 million U.S. adults seeking programs and resources in 2021. 

Mental health can be a difficult conversation to have with employees who may be suffering from PTSD, so leaders should delicately broach the topic to better understand how they can help and what next steps to take. This can include initiating company-wide mental health training, instilling coping strategies as part of your workplace culture and providing easy access to free or affordable medical plans with a mental health provider. 

If you’re a leader who has overcome past trauma, speak candidly about your own experience. Relatability can break down communication barriers and misunderstandings of employee behaviors.  

Focus on problem-solving and finding solutions  

Active listening and taking action from feedback is a critical attribute for effective leadership. I realized it benefited me greatly to keep employee morale and problem-solving abilities intact as we were relocating from Russia to Dubai. Investing in my team was the goal. After sourcing their feedback and communicating our options, we made a decision. 

Some of our team members spent a few weeks in Dubai, but after hearing their opinions about settling down long-term, we collectively decided Europe would be the most suitable choice. Taking the time to understand the perspectives and concerns of employees may require you to change course. This exercise will help you become a better leader who is flexible enough to make more informed and well-rounded decisions. 

Stepping up as a leader during stressful times is a challenge, but it's also an opportunity to have a profound effect on employees. It’s never easy, especially in a time of war. But if leaders can embrace this challenge with unwavering commitment, they can pave the way for a brighter future – reminding us that great leaders are born in adversity. 

Liza Bortnikova is COO and co-founder of AI Digital.


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