It is a sometimes-painful irony of life that we may learn the most about ourselves when life throws us a curve ball. So it is with leadership. We fully discover our strengths and shortcomings when we are tested by adversity. How we deal with it and what we learn is central to who we are and our credibility as leaders. In bad times, all eyes are on the leader. How we behave has a tremendous impact on our people.
So how can leaders successfully lead during trying times? Decades of research describe the three elements of effective management in stressful times: task, people, and self-management.
- Task management is the leader’s ability to set goals, organize efforts, direct activities, provide corrective feedback, and set the general focus of efforts.
- People management identifies the importance of communication, motivation, and encouragement. The ability to set the emotional tone of the workplace and inspire greater effort from others is the hallmark of a transformational leader. Operating in a stressful environment actually tends to increase the leaders’ impact. People look at leaders more in hard times, partly as a product of the ambiguity that adversity creates.
- Self-management includes managing your behaviour in ways conducive to more positive morale and action from your people and helping them manage their own attitudes and behaviours toward appropriate outcomes.
From a task standpoint, the critical challenge is keeping people focused on things that are under their control. You may not be able to affect what happens in the stock market, but you can reach out to your customers and provide great service. This sense of control helps people manage their stress and allows them to experience small wins that have a buffering effect.
It is critical that leaders provide a broader vision of the future and a sense of direction and purpose. By linking today’s actions to a better future, people gain a sense of perspective. Pointing out how one’s individual job links to a broader corporate strategy, provides a sense of purpose and unity. A sense of purpose can provide significant relief from debilitating effects of stress. Although many people draw on their sense of purpose from broader life activities, a business leader can help provide the same sense at work.
On the people side, leaders must be seen as a reliable source of information, even when it means admitting you do not know. Equally important is listening. By understanding people’s concerns, leaders can more readily address them and share with them the information and insights that will help reduce misunderstandings and deplete negative rumours.
In rough times, it is critically important to find opportunities for positive emotion. While a sense of humour helps, it is also important to celebrate wins, find ways to have fun, and thank people. Emphasizing strengths wins, and good news helps redirect people’s attention. While few people would wish to go through a difficult personal or professional challenge again, most recognize the benefits. Seeing current circumstances as contributing to our resilience helps to make us more resilient.
Self-management includes managing your behaviour in ways conducive to more positive morale and actions from your people, helping them manage their own attitudes and behaviours toward appropriate outcomes. It is natural for people to feel powerless and victimized in tough times, so it is important for the leader to help his or her people shift from the mindset of passive victim observing things from the sidelines to that of the athlete playing the game. Anything you can do to keep them focused on the fact that we always have choices and that, although we may not always control the final score, we do control how we play. If we play with integrity, stamina, optimism, and intensity, we can often surprise ourselves. Even if we fall short of our expectations, we can be proud of our performance.
It starts with a look in the mirror. You are the role model. You set the tone. If you are positive, confident, and optimistic, your people are likely to behave the same way. If you display focus and determination, they are likely to follow suit. Remember, just as panic and despair are infectious, so are energy and enthusiasm. In the words of Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Want to learn more about the different facets of leadership and how to successfully navigate a variety of challenges? In my book, Feet to the Fire, I show you how to model personal accountability and how to hold others to account.
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