Leadership in Troubled Times

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Unless you have been on holiday on another planet you are acutely aware of the current financial ‘readjustment’ that has created turmoil for many individuals and businesses. If you hold any form of leadership position then the question on the forefront of your mind should be “How do I lead in such troubled times?”

To paraphrase the Russian novelist/philosopher Count Leo Tolstoy, “In untroubled times the leader believes that it is his efforts alone that guide and move the ship, but as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave such a delusion is no longer possible. The ship moves independently with its own enormous motion and the leader, instead of appearing a ruler and a source of power, becomes an insignificant, useless, feeble man.”

Such a prediction from the early 1900’s seems remarkably prophetic when we look at the recent lack of leadership from the senior management of Lehman Brothers, and yet this 158-year old company had withstood many previous storms including the Great Depression and two World Wars. It is therefore possible to survive and even prosper during turbulent and troubled times but it requires the right kind of leadership.

First and foremost the leader in troubled times manages his or her mindset and emotions, they do not run around like Chicken Little saying, “the sky is falling” because fear creates panic and panic leads to poor decision making. The effective leader takes a firm grasp of reality and focuses on the opportunities that the current climate creates.

For the time-challenged leader I have articulated some further dos and don’ts that have been proven to be effective during financially tough times.

  1. Do communicate, communicate and communicate to your people. Communicate both the problems and the opportunities and invite your people to contribute solutions. Let them know that adversity breads innovation and invention at that no idea is stupid just not all ideas can be implemented.
  2. Don’t allow gossip and fear mongering. Let people know that if they talk the problem up it will only get worse.
  3. Do focus on the priorities where a clear lead can be attained. Reduce costs and limit spending to essential areas.
  4. Don’t make short-term cutbacks that will have long-term consequences. Cutting anything that will damage the quality of your product or service must be avoided. For example cutting training and development may make the P&L look better for Q4 but the results in terms of quality of service, decision making and staff engagement will begin to show at the end of Q1 2009.
  5. Do keep an eye on your top talent. It is in troubled times that you really need depth on your leadership bench. Finding the time to coach and mentor your top talent will prevent them being poached by other organisations leaving you too thin on the ground to leverage on the opportunities that are sure to follow the crisis
  6. Don’t work harder instead of smarter or you will burn yourself out. It is important to take time to step back and review the situation and strategise how to work more effectively.
  7. Do remember your vision and keep faith that it can be achieved.

There is a perennial discussion about whether leaders are born or made, but everyone agrees that it is often through adversity that true leadership is revealed, is this your time to shine?

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