Leadership During Challenging Times

We live in uncertain times. The world as we know it has changed dramatically because of the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus. The pandemic, racial tensions, geopolitical issues, financial meltdown, and high unemployment are some of the challenges turning our lives upside down. It feels like we are being hit with a hundred-year flood, and sadly, there are no signs indicating that the waters will recede anytime soon. How can individuals, leaders, and corporations react to such dreadful events? Strong and decisive leadership can make a big difference in how quickly we emerge from this difficult situation.

Recently, I was asked to present my perspective on leadership during challenging times to a panel of business leaders. My experiences and observations have led me to a few fundamental leadership tenets to consider right now. Purpose-driven organizations are resilient, and with the right leadership, they can thrive on chaos and gain an edge over their competition. When purpose-driven leaders motivate their teams to deliver value without compromising on their vision and values, they create reasons for their employees to wake up in the morning and come to work with passion and energy. I see three broad areas of leadership that can have a significant impact on organizations and communities:

  1. Empathy, Engagement, and Communication
  2. Decisiveness and Focus
  3. Innovation and Collaboration

A crisis is an opportunity riding a dangerous wind. Chinese proverb.

Empathy, Engagement, and Communication

An organization is nothing without the people who stand behind it. But people are emotional. Their fears and anxieties get amplified during challenging times. If these negative thoughts aren’t addressed through good communication, they will impact the overall culture of the organization. Leaders make themselves present and available during difficult times and keep their team hopeful and optimistic through transparent and trusted communication. It is important for the team to feel that their leadership is committed to the health and safety of all its members.

Be empathetic; take time out of your busy schedule to see what life is like in someone else’s shoes. To emotionally connect with the team, it is acceptable for leaders to share their own feelings of vulnerability. Actively listening to their team members’ challenges and offering to help where it matters will help boost morale within the organization. 

A few years back, during a bad fiscal quarter, one of my direct reports barged into my office, demanded a salary raise, and threatened to quit if he didn’t get one. At first, I was extremely angry and disappointed, but instead of judging his intentions, I asked to continue the conversation after work. During our conversation, it became apparent that money was not the primary issue. This person was dealing with a multitude of challenges, ranging from personal family matters to career growth and a feeling of helplessness. I was happy that he came and talked to me. Spending meaningful time with this person and relating his experiences to my own helped address the situation. As leaders, we have a duty to listen, empathize, and support our team members during difficult times.

The number one practical competency of leaders is empathy. —Peter Drucker

Decisiveness and Focus

Resources, whether financial or human capital, are constrained irrespective of the size of an organization, and these constraints are magnified during challenging times. Leaders have to be thoughtful and decisive to focus the limited resources on things that really matter, in both the short and the long term. That means leaders should be open and willing to make tough calls early in the game and say no to programs that don’t add value. 

Leaders paint the big picture of what the goal looks and feels like and how the team is going to get there. Exhibiting a sense of urgency by making decisions fast and emphasizing speed of execution gives your team a sense of progress.

Move away from a command-and-control management style toward creating empowered, dynamic teams—teams dedicated to solving specific problems without any hierarchy or formal reporting lines.

When I was leading an organization in the Middle East, we went through some dramatic changes in a very short time frame. While we were still integrating an acquired company, our parent company merged with another large firm. The core markets crashed because of lower oil prices. We lost a large customer because of a trade embargo enforced by the US government. A perfect storm. Our people were confused, distraught and felt vulnerable.

I engaged my leadership team to explore all possible avenues of growth during difficult times. We discussed and debated the risk of not taking bold, strategic actions. We even went back to the basics and discussed the company’s strategy and purpose. We questioned whether we were using the full strengths of the organization. Once we identified specific growth initiatives, we created small, dynamic teams to work on them. After a painful six months, we stabilized the business, brought back the people we had furloughed, built a strong team, and, more importantly, built a strong culture of execution.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. —Peter Drucker

Innovation and Collaboration

When the world is looking bleak and people are pessimistic, smart leaders look toward a future where there are untapped opportunities. Leaders use disruptions as a catalyst to innovate and differentiate.

Innovation is not restricted to introducing new products; it involves all elements of the business model, including people management. It is also about transforming a company’s core business model to better serve its customers. Think about how the medical practice has changed in the last few months, from patients visiting doctors in person to virtual visits. Similar paradigm shifts are taking place in the industrial sector, where companies are having to offer automation and digital solutions at a faster rate. The current environment is forcing companies to reevaluate supply chain strategies and risks, and to rethink people management processes. There are no sacred cows when it comes to innovation.

Encourage your employees to learn, collaborate, and solve problems. It is all about moving forward and not getting stuck with the status quo. Instead of sending more customer satisfaction surveys, pick one or two industry challenges and partner with your customers to address them. While weak companies retract and become more internally focused, smart companies get ambitious and start playing offensive. Use the full competencies and capabilities of your organization to differentiate in the marketplace.

The enterprise that does not innovate ages and declines. And in a period of rapid changes such as the present, the decline will be fast. —Peter Drucker

Bottom Line

At every step of our lives, challenges and opportunities are lurking around the corner. Strong leaders don’t get bogged down by the hardship of challenges but continue to harvest all their energy to seek opportunities to improve conditions for their team, organization, and community.

Certain core leadership traits, as described above, do not change no matter what calamities society is facing. An energetic and passionate leader, who can engage their team and focus their energy on solving specific problems, will make a big difference during challenging times. 

The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant. —Jim Rohn

The Not-So-Good Leadership Traits to Avoid

In an age where everything is stored digitally, I have this habit of saving good articles by cutting and pasting them into a paper notebook.

While flipping through the pages, I recently came across one of those cut-out articles – The Worst Leaders, published by Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2009. There are thousands of articles and books on good leadership, but few talk about the characteristics of worst leadership.

At some point in our lives, we have worked for great leaders and have had the opportunity to experience the respected qualities that come with strong leadership. Other times, we face the misfortune of having to work for not-so-good leaders, yet there is ample room to learn from those experiences as well.

Here are the top 10 traits of worst leaders according to HBR and keeping an eye on these blind spots helps to improve one’s leadership:

  1. Lack of Energy and Enthusiasm – these are the leaders who avoid new initiatives and they can suck all the energy out of any room
  2. Accept their own mediocre performance – these are the leaders who seem to be ok with average level of performance
  3. Lack clear vision and direction – they believe their only job is to execute
  4. Have poor judgment – they make decisions that colleagues and subordinates consider to be not in the organizations best interests
  5. Don’t collaborate – they view other leaders as competitors and they are set adrift by the very people whose insights and support they need
  6. Don’t walk the talk – they set standards of behavior or expectation of performance and then they violate them
  7. Resist new ideas – they reject suggestion from subordinates and peers. Good ideas are not implemented
  8. Don’t learn from mistakes – they fail to use setbacks as opportunities for improvement, hiding their errors
  9. Lack of interpersonal skills – they are either too abrasive or aloof and unavailable
  10. Fail to develop others – they do not develop new leaders causing individuals and teams to disengage

Realistically, one can’t expect to excel in all aspects of good leadership in its entirety. Keeping an eye on a handful of leadership traits, which are part of your core leadership style, and improving on others is a good balance to have.

Bottom Line.

You can’t create greater followers under poor leadership.