Turbulent times call for extraordinary leadership

November 12, 2008
By: Vicki Bell

Whether it's nervous energy, a pre-holiday cleaning bug, this week's full moon—whatever the reason—for the past few days, I've been on a mission to clean my office. Three full trash bags now are waiting outside my door, and my paper shredder needs to be emptied.

It's amazing what you find when you go through old paperwork. If you let papers pile up long enough, you can relive an entire year as you sort and discard items that are months' old! If things go the way they usually do for me, I'll be scrambling in a day or so to find something I threw out, thinking I no longer needed it. However, I ran across and hung on to a couple of articles I printed out last spring. Their topic is even timelier now than when I first printed them—leading during turbulent times.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that the present time is the most turbulent I've seen in my lifetime. It's been months since I checked my 401(k) balance and even longer since I looked at my IRA/stock statement. Let's just say that retirement isn't looming on my horizon and probably won't be for quite some time—if ever. I've heard similar statements from many friends and co-workers.

Leading a company or a team is challenging, even in good times. Leaders are people, too. They have the same personal concerns as those they lead, but they have to concentrate on more than just their own day-to-day survival. People, companies, and the economy depend on them. Good leadership can help a company weather turbulent times and shore up the economy; poor leadership can ruin a company, create a domino effect that touches many businesses and lives, and destroy the economy.

How does a good leader lead in times such as these? Here are some suggestions from one of the articles I unearthed.

From Chris Widener's "Top 7 Ways to Exhibit Extraordinary Leadership in Tough and Challenging Times:"

  1. Keep Your Eye on the Big Picture—When things get tough, everybody's temptation is to become acutely focused on the problem. An extraordinary leader remains focused on the big picture while addressing the problem.

  2. Don't Get Caught in the War or the Friendly Fire—When times get tough even the most loyal team members can be tempted to start shooting and, unfortunately, they sometimes shoot each other! Rather than focusing on the enemy on the outside, they begin to question each other and find many faults with one another that they normally would not have seen. The extraordinary leader is the one who can keep from being dragged into the fray. He keeps his eye on the big picture and acts rationally and objectively. He understands that people are heated and are saying things they don't really mean. The people are firing because they are angry or scared. The extraordinary leader understands this and rises above it. This way, he takes fewer arrows and sets the example for others.

  3. Be the First to Sacrifice—When it gets tough—for example, when salaries need to be cut—the leader should take the lead. He needs not only to be the one who is rewarded the greatest when all is well, but also to be the first to sacrifice. The extraordinary leader says, "I know many of you are concerned with the salary cuts. I am too. In the long run we will be healthy again, but for the mean time, this is necessary. Understanding this, I want you to know that I am taking a 20 percent pay reduction myself. I want you to know that we are in this together." The reward for his sacrifice is the loyalty of his followers.

  4. Remain Calm—Panic is one of the basest of human emotions and no one is immune to it. The extraordinary leader, however, takes time out regularly to think the issues through so he can remain calm. He reminds himself that all is not lost and there will be another day. He reminds himself that being calm enables him to make the best decisions—for himself and his followers. Panic only leads to disaster, while calm leads to victory.

  5. Motivate—In tough and challenging times, people naturally are down. They tend to be pessimistic. They can't see how it is all going to work out. Thus, they have a hard time getting going. The extraordinary leader knows this and focuses on being the optimistic motivator. He comes to the office knowing that for the time being, the mood of the group will be carried and buoyed by him and his attitude. Above all else, he seeks to show how the end result will be good, and by doing so, motivates his followers to continue on.

  6. Create Small Wins—One of the ways to motivate is to create small wins. The extraordinary leader knows that in tough times people think that all is lost. They wonder if they can win. So the extraordinary leader creates opportunities for the team to win, even if they are small. He sets smaller, more achievable goals and reminds and rewards the team members when they hit those goals. With each small win, the leader is building the esteem and attitude of his followers, digging them out of their hole of fear.

  7. Keep a Sense of Humor—Hardly anything in life can't be laughed at. The extraordinary leader knows that even if the whole company goes down the drain, everyone still goes home to their families and live a life of love with them. The extraordinary leader keeps perspective and knows that we humans act irrationally when we get scared and fail, and sometimes that is humorous. Never laugh at someone's expense in this situation, because that will be perceived as cold and heartless, regardless of what you meant by it, but do keep the ability to laugh at yourself and the situations that present themselves. By doing this you will keep yourself and your team in an attitude that eventually will beat the tough times.

Similar suggestions can be found in Bob Prosen's "Leading During Turbulent Times," which, unfortunately, can't be accessed without a paid subscription to The CEO Refresher. Prosen offers nine tips:

  1. Establish no more than five clearly stated and measurable objectives.

  2. Identify and remove the roadblocks that hinder your team's performance.

  3. Reward your people for results not how hard they work.

  4. Don't cut back on rewards and recognition during leaner times. Now more than ever, you need your core team to feel appreciated and important.

  5. Be honest and tell your team what's needed to win.

  6. Keep your employees well informed to help mitigate fear.

  7. Be extremely hard on performance and easy on people.

  8. Acknowledge success and reinforce the positive.

  9. Maintain the proper balance between passion and optimism with realism and judgment.

Leaders, if you aren't already following these suggestions, adopt them. It can't hurt. Be the best leader you can be and lead us out of this turbulent time.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209