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June 2003

Tough Times Leadership

I remember starting my freshman year in college at my out-of-state school feeling ambitious, excited and ready to take on the world. It wasn't long, however, before all I could report home was how miserable I felt. Everything surrounding me differed drastically from my earlier life experiences. I didn't fit in. My usual “success strategies” didn't work. My confidence was shaken. Then I received a letter from my father with a very important message: no matter what I had done or achieved before, the challenge I had to meet now was to stay in the game.

My father was right. Staying in the game is exactly what is required when tough times hit. Teams need to pull together and individuals need to commit themselves fully. And in terms of organizational life, that's when effective leadership is crucial.

Of course, for those tapped to be the actual leaders, tough times mean the pressure is on, stakes are high, and certain potential pitfalls await. Among the common dangers:

The Isolation Tank. Leaders are used to taking charge and letting the buck stop with them. Consequently, when tough times arise, they tend to isolate themselves and try “shouldering the burden” or “fixing things” on their own. Shutting yourself off, however, effectively shuts out others whose insights on the situation are probably valuable. Additionally, it disengages you from the organization just when your presence and interaction is most vital.

The Discomfort Zone. Tough times, by definition, imply some level of upheaval, crisis, instability, or the like. It is tempting for leaders to fall back on familiar strategies and procedures to regain a sense of normalcy and control. The tried-and-true may seem like the way back to your usual comfort zone, yet tough times often demand the opposite — innovative thinking and new ways of approaching uncommon circumstances.

The Smoke Screen. Leaders are the primary caretakers of a powerful commodity — information. Deciding how much of it, and when to dispense it to key stakeholders or the organization at large, can be especially hard in tough times. Opting to conceal important facts or to deliver mostly sugar-coated messages may be more easily rationalized when news generally trends to the gloomy side, but it is not necessarily more wise. Keeping people in the loop as much as possible is a significant way for you to inspire trust, loyalty and commitment throughout the organization.

Leaders in tough times are expected to both stay in the game and turn in an extraordinary performance. They are looked to for guidance, inspiration and a clear course of action. In turn, they must look to others for feedback, diverse viewpoints and fresh ideas. Going it alone is not the surefire formula for success. At their best, effective leaders serve as a unifying force, drawing an organization together and keeping it together, bringing people through the worst of times to emerge stronger than before.

by Rudolph W. Giuliani

Over the years, I've read so many books on leadership that, frankly, serve up the same advice: Create A Vision, Motivate, Execute, etc. But this book, by a man whose tough leadership job encompassed an eight-year period, including September 11th, as Mayor of New York City, is different…and good. (I “dog-eared” 57 of the first 200 pages to refer to later!)

The book has something for everyone seeking an insider's view on leadership, whether to learn about leading a massive bureaucratic organization toward tremendous performance results, or about how to lead effectively in terrible and surprising crises.

There are familiar maxims: “Surround yourself with great people. Have beliefs and communicate them. Stand up to bullies. Deal with first things first. Prepare relentlessly.” More profound is that his lessons learned are backed with evidence that he truly “walked the [leadership] talk” and delivered the results he promised. As he writes: “The two-word sign on my desk genuinely summarizes my whole philosophy: I'm Responsible.”

I was struck by the fact that Guiliani, for all his self-assured ways, is foremost a student: of historic battles, of urban government, of cancer treatments. Faced with either job or personal challenges, he was not above seeking out experts, on or off his team, for insights he could put to practical use. A mentor of mine, Lyman Thayer, used to say: “A finished leader is a finished leader.” Guiliani may be out of the national spotlight — for now — but I wonder what new leadership role he is studying for?

Actions for Results: Tips & Tools for Tough Times Leadership.

Stay in touch. Walk the halls. Visit customers. Seek other perspectives. Be visible, accessible and empathetic.

Prioritize. Forget business as usual. Examine current needs given the current context and decide what demands attention first.

Tell the truth. Denying reality won't change reality. Be honest with yourself and others about what is going on.

Tap sources of personal support. Immersing yourself 24/7 is the path to burnout. Go to the gym, go to church, play with your kids, play with your dog.

Move forward. You cannot undo the past. Forget about your difficulties and losses; focus on the present challenges, opportunities and progress.

“Frequently, the difference between success and failure is the resolve to stick to your plan long enough to win.”

David Cottrell

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Lynda McDermott

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