There is a silver lining for leaders in today’s tough economic climate. While challenging, the problems create opportunities for leaders to bring value to their organization. Those currently serving, or who have previously served in military leadership positions during war time, understand this. The time when military leaders make their greatest contribution is during war. Though it is a very different kind of “war,” companies are fighting for market share, customer dollars, new product innovations, and profits, in a very messy economic environment. This is a time for “true” leaders to step up, focus on bringing value to their organization, make what could be their greatest contribution to date to their organization, and most of all, learn valuable lessons for the future.
Reading the newspapers, watching the evening news, listening to the radio and even standing in the check-out line at the local grocery store, I hear a lot of panic, stress, catastrophic thinking, resistance to change, and inability to take action. You can bet the people you lead are hearing the same conversations, listening to the same news and having some similar thoughts or feelings. They need leaders to establish the vision, lay out the plan, catalyze action, and provide optimism and enthusiasm to win – regardless of the obstacles. In this economic market and military environment, opportunities for leaders to make an impact are almost limitless.
Reading Fortune magazine, BusinessWeek and talking to some of our most seasoned alumni, I have learned numerous ways to make an impact. Since this is my second recession, I am also learning how to lead in this environment. I want to share with you the lessons I am learning and implementing to make an impact.
1) Set the Example. Your team knows the business environment is tough. They know significant challenges lie ahead, and you can bet they are looking at you to see how they should approach them. You have to set the example. What’s your attitude? You can’t inspire others unless you have an attitude that demonstrates hope, resilience and confidence to win. Ask yourself, How do I respond to bad news? How do I react to problems? Do the words I use and actions I take exude confidence and a willingness to overcome obstacles and problems? The BusinessWeek Article from January 13, “Analyze This” by Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz, talks about resilience. He writes, “In the current meltdown, I see the resilience factor at work in the CEO’s I speak with. Some see a dangerous and unpredictable time that they hope to ‘ride out.’ Others consider these events a chance to learn, protecting their companies and looking for opportunities…resilience can help banish the extreme anxiety that prevents clear thinking, action, and the ability to imagine what’s around the corner.” Right now, you can make a HUGE impact on your team by simply setting the example of being positive, communicating solutions to problems and not giving into fears. Remember, people are looking at how you act and talk, they take their cue from their leader. You can be a positive or a negative influence, but you cannot be both.
2) Hit “singles” every day instead of looking for the “homerun.” Those of you who follow baseball know that players who consistently hit “singles” have a higher batting average than those who “swing for the fences.” In fact, “swinging for the fences” leads to more strikeouts. Your organization needs people who can hit “singles” every day, which means every day moving the organization one small step forward. In this market, it is not going to be some great achievement that returns the company to “normal” but rather an emphasis on making incremental improvements and staying focused. Another way of saying this is focus on your fundamentals and execute them perfectly instead of looking for some great panacea – because it’s probably not out there.
3) “Keep Flying the Plane.” On December 29th, 1972, Eastern Airlines flight 401 with an experienced crew piloting the plane left JFK airport for a routine flight to Miami, FL. As the plane approached the Miami airport, the landing gear indicator light did not illuminate. The captain circled the airport while he dispatched the flight engineer to check the avionics. He then put the plane on autopilot and he and the co-pilots worked on the malfunctioning light bulb. The plane lost altitude and crashed into the Florida everglades. There is a lesson here. No one was flying the plane! This is not a time you, your team or your company can autopilot. You have to fly the plane every day. You are the leader, no matter what adversity or challenges you face – keep flying the plane. You have to focus on the most important tasks at hand. There may be a lot coming at you, problem after problem, challenge after challenge. Focus on the ones that will deliver results. Keep flying the plane. Eventually you will get where you want to go.
4) Keep communicating with your team. Whether or not your organization is facing uncertainty, you cannot assume your team members understand what is happening in your area. Remember, they are being bombarded by doom and gloom in the media. Now, more than ever, you have to keep your team updated. Information is power. Withholding it centralizes it to you, sharing it gives your team members power to make better decisions and work more effectively. The Fortune issue of January 29, 2009 has an excellent article written by Geoff Colvin titled, “How to Manage Your Business in a Recession.” I highly recommend reading it. One of his key points is to communicate constantly with your team members balancing realism and optimism. Colvin writes, “Your silence just makes them worry more.” The more you communicate with people, the more they will appreciate you and know you care about them. You can do this through weekly team meetings, “management by walking around” or individual sessions. Be realistic, but also share positive facts and what’s going well.
5) Crucible Experience. Warren Bennis, Professor of Business Administration at University of Southern California, and Consultant, writes in his book On Becoming a Leader, “One thing we know is that a more dangerous world makes the need for leadership, in every organization, in every institution, more pressing than ever.” He goes on to write, “…in the course of studying how geeks and geezers became leaders…I discovered that their leadership always emerged after some rite of passage, often a stressful one. We call the experience that produces leaders a crucible.” “The individual brings certain attributes into the crucible and emerges with new, improved leadership skills. Whatever is thrown at them, leaders emerge from their crucibles stronger and unbroken.” Or as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said more bluntly, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Today and the next few months could be your crucible experience. There will be lessons learned, mistakes made, and strategies that work. If you want to reach your potential and become a stronger leader, pay attention to the lessons in front of you. The next time you face a crisis or challenge, you will have your new tools, ideas and lessons ready to tackle it.
Approach every day with a realistic, positive and resilient attitude. Remember, as a leader, your team will adopt your attitude. Focus on hitting “singles” frequently and adding value every day instead of “swinging for the fences.” Focus on the bottom line, don’t be distracted. In other words, keep flying the plane. Communicate often with your team. They need you, they respect you, they believe you have the answers. And look and listen for lessons in what might be your crucible experience.
I believe every challenge or problem provides an opportunity. Geoff Colvin, in his Fortune article referenced earlier, also writes, “Marathoners and Tour de France racers will tell you that a race’s hardest parts, the uphill stages, are where the lead changes hands.” I have run several marathons and I have seen people move to the side of the road and walk, sit down, stretch and even quit. What I told myself on those hills is the same thing I tell myself today and I share with you, “Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually I will get to the top and run downhill.”