TOUGH TIMES often define leaders. There is a big difference between managing and leading. Leaders provide direction, the road map for change and inspiration for even the most difficult journeys. The most effective leaders are good at influencing others — often with their contagious passion. They motivate us to do our best by engaging our minds and hearts in their vision of a preferred future.
Difficult times tend to distinguish great leaders from the mediocre ones. When the going gets tough, the best leaders rely on clear, deliberate and inspiring communication rather than a “command and control” management style. They know that bullying and punishment rarely result in sustainable performance improvement and more frequently result in good people simply leaving. The most effective leaders instill confidence with their solid judgment, integrity and setting clear direction and expectations. During trauma, drama and chaos, they discern priorities and rally the troops with best strategies for solution.
Guidelines for leaders during difficult times:
- Challenge your perspective and assumptions. If you aren’t confident that you know what is going on in the layers below you, find out — directly and personally. This is not the time for tunnel vision or relying solely on those who keep telling you everything is fine. This could be as simple as managing by walking around. Get input from everyone — especially the front line. Employees will be more motivated to do their best when they identify their leader’s willingness to be in the trenches with them. Getting out there can provide valuable insight into current challenges and opportunities for improvement. Consider bringing employees together to identify what their outlook is and their challenges and potential solutions. And don’t forget the customers — ask them how your organization is doing.
- Revisit the company’s vision and strategies and revise them if necessary to meet conditions. The only constant is change; being adaptive and communicating change effectively within the organization remains a key management skill. Communicate authentically and frequently. Be straightforward and transparent. Avoid hidden agendas and sugarcoated messages — adults can handle reality.
- Use the current condition to challenge “business as usual.” Tough times present excellent opportunity for change. Address traditional and outdated policies and procedures, including “minor” challenges that employees and customers have been requesting you fix. Get rid of the minutiae that get in your people’s way of success. Challenge the organization to find ways to make life easier for everyone. Seemingly small improvements frequently result in big payoffs.
- Proactively identify and support those who demonstrate both the ability and willingness to take creative initiative and lead in tough times. Managers and employees who challenge the status quo while demonstrating they can inspire others while doing so are solid-gold keepers. Support, promote and enhance the skills and capability of these critical resources. These are the people whom senior leaders should be making an extra effort to acknowledge, retain and protect.
- Identify what — or who — is part of the problem and what is part of the solution. Act accordingly.
- Demonstrate appreciation for even small efforts and contributions. Most employees will respond by giving you their best if they know you are noticing and appreciating their hard work.
- Like it or not, it’s often during really tough times that difficult decisions (finally) get made. Leaders who bury their heads in the sand or hide out in their offices frequently find themselves with greater problems and in the end can fail everyone.