We’ve gotten very fond of saying that business conditions are more challenging now than they’ve ever been. The Internet, you know, and globalization, and technology, and political unrest, and on and on and on until it seems like everything is always on the verge of total collapse. Built into all of this is the implication that turbulent times call for a new kind of leadership, something bold and different and radical enough to see us safely through the storm. It’s almost as though we enjoy feeling attacked on all sides.
I don’t, though. In fact, I don’t like being attacked at all. Which is why I’m of the opinion that effective leadership looks largely the same whether business is good, bad, smooth or stressful. In that sense it’s a lot like navigating marriage or parenthood. Every marriage experiences plenty of ups and downs over the years, and the challenges of raising children evolves significantly as your children age, but in both cases the core strategies remain the same – stay together, communicate frequently and effectively, focus on your shared goal, and be willing to adjust when necessary. These ideas apply equally to businesses trying to move from good to great as they do to businesses looking to move from bad to good.
However, there are some subtle differences in the approaches we take in those different situations. Let’s summarize:
When Things Are Good
First and foremost should be rewarding and respecting people for the good work they’ve done to get you to this point. There are three sentences that will accomplish this, and every leadership book everywhere is saying some version of these three sentences:
- I like and respect you as an individual.
- The work we do is important.
- I know that you can successfully handle that challenge.
Effective leaders are saying these things all the time to their people, as well as explaining the why of it – why I respect you, why the work we do makes a difference, etc. At the same time, effective leaders are never fully complacent. Running a business is like sailing a ship, and smooth seas today are no guarantee that there isn’t a storm on the horizon. It’s important to remind people to stay hungry, to continue to look for opportunities and not assume that things will always stay the way they are now.
When Things Are Bad
Most important is to acknowledge that things are not where they need to be, and then focus relentless on finding solutions rather than placing blame (unless somebody did a lot of fraud and lying and insider trading, in which case please blame away!). Morale tends to decline during these slumps, so it becomes even more important to remind people how much you respect them, how important your work is, and how confident you are that they can handle the challenge. Sound familiar?
It’s also important to remind people that this isn’t the first challenge you’ve had to face as a business. You’ve dealt with difficulties in the past, and you’ve always survived them. In some cases they made you stronger than you were before. Yes, things are rocky now, but a storm today doesn’t mean people should assume that things will always stay the way they are now. Wait a second – didn’t I write that already?
The biggest difference is that the world is a lot noisier now than it used to be. Literally everyone on the planet now has the ability to shout as loudly as they want about as many things as they want, and lots of people avail themselves of that opportunity. So perhaps today’s biggest leadership challenge is remembering to highlight these elements of leadership more often, more creatively, and more forcefully than you did in the past. Yes, the world is louder now than it used to be – but that doesn’t mean the ideas and messages of effective leadership need to be any different than before.