Take Heart: Lessons from Leading in Turbulent Times

You feel it; we hear it.  Leaders today are not blessed with the sunny ease of honing their leadership skills through careful experimentation over time.  Instead, they (you!) are thrown into complex, rapidly changing environments that demand of them untested – and sometimes even unimagined – leadership skills.  A scandal threatens to undermine your organization’s good name – and you must be a compelling spokesperson for its reputation.  A crisis (political, financial, or natural) brings your essential product and service delivery process to a halt, sometimes for the foreseeable future, and you have to keep your company competitive.  Markets go crazy and you don’t know what actions to take to remain sound.

We’ve listened to leaders expressing fears about their readiness to lead effectively in today’s stressful, volatile, politicized environment.  “I’m trying to lead toward a moving target,” said Rachel, “and I’m getting dizzy just trying to keep my eye on the target, much less figure out how to bring everyone on my team with me.”  “All the promises that were made went out the window,” said Eric.  “How do I restart a relationship with these partners?”

Remember the old adage about ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’?  The most savvy leaders have not just learned tough lessons from turbulent times; they have been heartened by what they’ve found when they’ve led in these difficult settings.  Here are some of the heartening things they’ve learned:

  • People rally.  Far from being defeated by tough times, teams coalesce to address crises and difficult situations.  Many times their best ideas come forward.  Anna, the CEO of a large non-profit, initially tried to shield her staff from the news that their primary funding source had pulled out, not wanting to distract them from their work.  But when, exhausted by trying to deal with it herself, she finally brought them in on the difficulty, the team self-organized to help Anna put into place an effective work plan to deal with the crisis.  “I learned that many people working on a problem is better than one person,” said Anna.
  • Transparency wins.  Frédéric Oudéa, the CEO of French banking giant Société Générale, when thrust into the position of having to explain huge bank losses during the financial crisis, described one of the leadership lessons he had learned as “the importance of having the courage to … expose yourself, despite considerable uncertainty and the lack of perfect information”.  Oudéa found that this openness served him well in his continuing tenure as CEO, not only with the public, but with his employees.  It sends a message that uncertainty is part of life and that the leader has faith that working together, the difficult situation will be resolved.
  • Relationships trump.  Eric had negotiated long, hard, and with exceedingly good faith with two other partners who promised substantial support in a three-way community venture.  It was crucial to the success of the venture that all three have substantive skin in the game, or the venture would not be viable.  Promises were made and Eric used them to cement the three-way commitment.  Then one partner backed way off the commitment, citing cold feet on the part of his board.  Though frustrated, Eric made good use of the excellent relationship he’d built with the CEO.  “John, I relied on your word, and on your reading of your board’s willingness to move forward.  I know that if you were in my shoes, you would ask me respectfully to take another run at my board, even knowing how uncomfortable that would be for me personally.  I’m asking you to do that.”  Though John was clearly unhappy with the challenge, he quickly acknowledged that their good relationship deserved more pushback on his board than he had given.  He went back to the board and soon had the original commitment terms back in place.  “I know why his board pulled back,” Eric told me, “the political climate was in turmoil and this firm’s commitment to the venture seems to send a message about where they stand politically.  But because of our relationship, John made sure they took that risk.”

When it seems to you that leadership is most trying, take heart.  Some of the lessons you most onerously learn are downright encouraging, showing you your own strengths and the strengths of others you can rely on to help you through the tough times.  Just keep looking for the lemonade.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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2 thoughts on “Take Heart: Lessons from Leading in Turbulent Times

  1. I could not agree more! You have cited three of what I have always regarded as essential qualifications of a good leader. Time and again I have seen honesty from the leader cause teams to rally in support. There is something about making yourself vulnerable that earns respect and elicits the best from people. And frankly, I think that today more than ever we find that transparency is not only expected, but required.

  2. It’s good to know, Liz, that you’ve also had these heartening experiences and find the same leadership qualities to serve you well. Thank you for commenting. Marge

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