4 Ways Effective Leaders Respond in Difficult Times

Tim Irwin

Some years ago, my wife, Anne, and our two sons enjoyed a several day stopover in Hawaii after I had spoken at a meeting in Singapore. At the magnificent beach in front of our hotel, the boys and I had fun surfing on boogie boards, while Anne read under a thatched beach cabana. At one point, I was the only one in the water. As I walked toward the beach I looked up to see Anne and the boys transfixed on me with their mouths agape. They seemed unable to speak or even gesture. At that instant a towering rogue wave struck me and threw me to the ocean floor with such force that it knocked the breath out of me. It then felt like I was in the spin cycle of a giant washing machine for what seemed like five minutes. Everyone on the beach rushed to my side and then gawked at my bright red sand-blasted skin. The boys later told me the wave was at least ten feet over my head when it hit.

During this current recession (aka “The Great Recession”), the headlines tell of many companies, in some cases, industry leaders, which were hit with a financial tsunami. In some cases these companies were swept out to sea and lost, rather than merely sandblasted on a rough sandy beach. I have walked the corridors of some of these organizations which were struggling to survive. The eyes of many employees conveyed the anxiety and uncertainty that most felt. Would a rogue wave roll over their company...and their jobs? You and I have wondered the same. Some of us have been personally impacted through job loss or other consequences of the downturn.

Many leaders with whom I have spoken seemed as shell-shocked as their employees. They appeared to be transfixed by the towering waves washing over their organization. In an effort to be transparent, these leaders have often attempted to communicate to their organization’s employees the seriousness of these dire challenges. As these grimfaced workers return to their jobs, they are often disheartened and distracted but still are better off than the employees of Lehman Brothers who packed their personal effects in cardboard boxes, turned in their IDs and walked to the subway in a stupor.

How do great leaders respond to a crisis?
There are several possible messages leaders can send:

“All is lost...good luck.”
“Stay the course, persevere, carry on.”
“It’s tough now but we will get through this...keep up your courage.”

A crisis cries out for great leadership, and the last of the three possible messages above is what is needed. Our present economic challenges call for inspired direction, both corporately and individually. We need to be encouraged to achieve… not driven to avoid failure.

Today’s difficulties represent a unique opportunity for leaders to lead... to get out in front. In crisis, tossed to and fro, employees need four things that can only come through competent, capable leaders:

1. Hope - “Things are tough but we will get through this.”
2. Direction - “Here’s where we are going... this is our compass heading.”
3. A Plan for Moving Forward - We need to know what to do - how to behave - who does what.
4. Trusted Leaders - Leaders with the character, competence and concern needed to coordinate the effort and encourage the rest of us.

If we serve in any leadership role, whether the CEO, a department leader, or head of the mail room, we must provide these four elements. For those who may not be in a formal leadership role, we have the opportunity to lead ourselves. We can provide inspired direction and generate hope in others through our own individual actions. Hope is contagious, regardless of our role in the organization.

In today’s turbulent economic environment, we all may be feeling a little sand blasted, and this is a normal reaction; however, our response after the wave hits is what ultimately defines us. We might even say it brands us and determines how we will be remembered in the years ahead.

How great it would be if we could seize this moment to be stronger, to grow in our character and become more hopeful. How great it would be for our organizations, if our leaders would move us collectively to this shared optimism and expectation. How great it would be if you and I chose to rise above and lead the way.

Dr. Tim Irwin, author of Run with the Bulls Without Getting Trampled, the Qualities You Need to Stay Out of Harm’s Way and Thrive at Work. www.RunWithTheBulls.net
Copyright 2010, author retains ownership. All Rights Reserved.

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