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Leadership in times of uncertainty


We live today in uncertain times. Forecasts, both business and economic, are being revised almost every month, if not more frequently. Even in emerging economies, which seem to have recovered and are faring better than the developed economies – at least in terms of GDP growth – optimism is tinged with caution. The events of the last two years have left an indelible imprint on how business is run and managed; one key learning has emerged, if nothing else:  for the foreseeable future, at least, it is prudent not to assume anything.

So, what does this mean for leaders? While there is no manager or leader in the world today who has any sort of experience of managing the business environment we have all experienced over the last two years, there are some basic rules which, if followed diligently, can help leaders navigate their way through a troubled business environment. In fact, all the wisdom of leadership in troubled times can be condensed into a five point strategy that can help leaders move ahead. These five points are basic and simple, probably even obvious. Unfortunately, however, I see many leaders who are aware of them, but for some reason or other are unable to follow them. But this five point strategy can stand leaders in good stead not just today, but even when times are good and business needs to grow, consolidate and become more efficient.

Who can benefit from this strategy? Any one who leads. You could be leading a business, a team within a business or even a specific function. The strategy is agnostic to the kind of leader you are. But the benefits are tangible. They have worked for me in the past and in the current environment and I have seen them work for others as well.

Here are the five points that form the pillars of the leadership strategy that I recommend:

  1. Have a vision and have faith in the vision: even if your business is going through the most difficult of times, remember that where there is a trough there will also be a peak. If you are going through bad times, do you have a vision for what you will do when you emerge from the trough or when you are at the peak? If you do not, then you will lose opportunities at the peak. The time for planning and strategizing for the peak is when you are in the trough. Unfortunately, it is human nature to get overwhelmed by circumstances and environmental considerations. Very often, leaders tend to get bogged down in the here and now because dealing with the present is also critical. You do need to get out of the trough in order to reach the peak, after all! But that does not mean that you lose sight of the future. It is very important to have a vision and even more important to have faith in the vision. If you, as a leader, are not confident about your vision, how do you expect your team to follow you through the storm?
  1. Always introspect: having faith or confidence in your vision, however, does not mean that you leave yourself open to overconfidence. I have seen many leaders fail because of overconfidence; sometimes even hubris. Introspect. It is important. Understand the motivations, the rationale behind your vision. Ensure that it is, to the best of your belief, the best vision you can have. How do you test it? Ask yourself: is my vision the best possible for:
    1. The business/team/function that I am responsible for?
    2. The company I work for?
    3. The people I lead?

    If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then you need to re-think your vision. Very often, leaders do think about the first two questions, but ignore the third question. People sometimes come last or don’t come to mind at all as an important consideration while testing a leader’s vision. But people are important for a vision to be achieved, as we shall see in just a moment.

  1. Don’t get operational: this is another trap that many leaders fall into when confronted with tough times. It is easy to give into the temptation of rolling up your sleeves and getting to work in a hands-on way. And sometimes, that may be inevitable. But is it always the best way to get through a trough? Not really. If you are to achieve your vision, your focus must stay on your vision and not waver. And that is just not possible if you get bogged down with operational details. Even if you are most adept at multi-tasking or highly skilled in operational details. Imagine you are the general of an army leading it into battle. Where would you get the best view of the battle from in order to determine if it is going the way you planned? On the ground, surrounded by your own and enemy troops, cutting your way through the enemy ranks? Or in a helicopter high above, surveying the action below; or, as in ancient times, standing on a nearby hill or higher ground, assessing the state of the action far below? But operational details are important, so how do you ensure that they are not neglected in difficult times? By ensuring that you have the best people around. Hire people who are smarter than you; they will prop you up when you need someone to delegate the operational details to. If they are smart and skilled, they will not need close supervision but can run things independently, leaving you as a leader to focus on the vision.
  1. Communicate: Sounds simple and obvious doesn’t it? But you’ll be surprised at the number of leaders who don’t communicate effectively. Communication is not just about talking to your team. Actually, communication works two ways. First, your communication to the team must be clear, specific and relevant. It should convey your expectations, detail your vision and create an inspiring visual of what you want your team to achieve. This gives them something to work towards. How often do you check with your team to ensure that they have interpreted your communication the way you wanted them to? Have they understood your vision and expectations? Or have they made assumptions that distort the meaning of your communication? All of us have filters which influence our interpretation of what we hear. In order for communication to be effective you need to ensure that you get your message past those filters without it getting distorted in any way. Second, your team should be able to communicate with you. How accessible are you to your team? How free does your team feel to be able to say something to you? If they are holding back information or data, it will affect the achievement of your vision. You need to ensure that your team has every opportunity to communicate with you and when they do communicate, they are not inhibited from speaking their minds.
  1. Lead: shouldn’t this have been the first point in this list? Perhaps, but leading is an amalgamation of all the points that have preceded this one. If you have a vision you are confident of, you stay focused on it, introspect and communicate you are already more than halfway on the path of true leadership. But there is more to leading than this. The key to leadership is to be inspirational to people who follow you. They must want to follow you; they must be motivated to follow you. And the biggest motivator is integrity – integrity not just to principles and financials; but integrity to words, thought and intent. You must live the words you speak and the thoughts you voice. A leader does not just articulate the vision and the strategy to achieve it. A true leader lives the path to achieving the vision. It may sound simple, but implementing this in practice is very difficult. But if you follow the first four points, you will find that being a true leader is much easier. And you will find people willingly and happily following you, even through difficult times!

Copyright © 2010 Christopher Doyle

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