Leadership is relatively easy when things are going well. If you have a high-performing team and a track record of excellent results, an organization may seem like a top-tier orchestra, flawlessly synchronized to each subtle flick of the conductor's baton. When faced with a challenge, this illusion quickly shatters, and many a leader has fallen from grace at the first reverberations of a challenging project or organizational disaster. Here are tips for coping with the bad times.
1: Look for the actors
When times turn bad, you'll generally find three types of people in your organization. The first blissfully ignores the problems at hand, and continues on their current path in the hopes that someone else will address them. This unhelpful group often whistles past the metaphorical graveyard until the time for action is well past, or turns hysterical as they're influenced by the second group: the complainers.
The complainers often astutely diagnose the problem, and may even provide an early warning of impending doom; however, as articulate and perceptive as they may be, their fatal flaw is that they fail to execute on any solutions. This group might be able to develop a perfect plan of action, but they sit on the sidelines waiting for a leader to emerge, the climate to change, or an ignorant peer to cross their path so they can regale them with tales of doom.
The final group, the actors, is willing to take bold action to address the problem. There may be multiple problems that cannot all be addressed by the leader; he or she must identify the struggles at hand, take on those that require his or her authority, and delegate elements of the mitigating action to the actors. This can be difficult, since those who speak the loudest may be the least likely to act on their dire predictions and bold plans.
It may be tempting to join in on the gripe sessions and lament the current state, but you're expected to rise above casting your worries with the lot, and must provide concrete actions to change the situation. While you may feel you're lending a sympathetic ear, joining the moaning and groaning makes you appear ineffective and impotent, and instantly reduces your credibility as a leader.
2: Don't sugarcoat
If your organization is in a fight for its existence, oftentimes laying the facts on the table is far better than attempting to protect your people from the true impact of the bad times at hand. Being open and honest lends credence to your requests for action, and will help convince others in your organization that they're working toward a far higher purpose rather than operating as business as usual.
This doesn't mean invoke doom and gloom at your organization's every minor setback, but if your business is at stake, let your people know what they're risking by complacency.
3: Be bold
When attempting to work within existing policies, procedures, and organizational structures, and being thwarted at every turn, it's time to consider bold action. If that well-regarded consulting partner or vendor isn't meeting your objectives, replace them. If your infrastructure team can't seem to keep the proverbial lights on, outsource the function to a competent third party. If some element in the chain of command isn't meeting their charter, bypass them. If the stakes are high enough, risking your reputation or having to apologize profusely for operating outside of normal procedures is far better than watching your organization fail and ultimately be replaced.
4: Set benchmarks
At your darkest hour, it may seem difficult to envision success at some undefined point in the future, so as part of planning your way out of the bad times it's critical to set benchmarks for success. Reasonable milestones along the path to success keep your team motivated, and let you track your progress against millstones set before a state of panic becomes the new normal. Furthermore, well-considered benchmarks let you shift out of disaster mode when the time comes, and prevent your team from burning out due to a constant state of emergency.
The bad times test our mettle as leaders, and can be the times when our leadership ability grows most dramatically. In leadership, as in life, adversity is usually the most effective teacher.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.