Leading in Difficult Times (2020)

Hugh Coppen

Uncertainty of Coronavirus impacts business and household alike

The massive uncertainty created by the present global Coronavirus turmoil impacts every business and every household in America and around the world. Many indicators point to an extended pandemic. And it’s a certainty that this will be seen as one of those cathartic transitions which will have consequences long after it is all over.


For many people, news saturation results in a deer-in-the-headlights experience in which they become paralysed by fear of the unknown and of the uncharted waters ahead. Who can blame them? There is no handbook to guide our way through this crisis. There are too many variables and wild cards.


It is at times like this that effective leadership becomes more critical than ever to the survival of your business. The aspects of leadership that matter most in difficult times are among the behaviours and principles that the best leaders practice at all times. The difference is that, in difficult times, they are the very linchpin of survival.


Of the many essential attributes and best practices of the most effective leaders, in my professional experience there are five key behaviors that are paramount when times are tough:


1. Be calm, be clear, be smart


When things are difficult and the global environment is bleak and unpredictable, people inevitably lose confidence; they become easily distracted by the waves of bad news and they are increasingly uncertain about their own future. One of the most important tasks of the business leader in these times is to remain composed and focused calmness is what people want from their leader. Be pragmatic, be practical, be realistic. Be crystal clear on goals, adapt and implement your strategies and plans, and be true to your values. Make smart, hard-nosed risk assessments. In other words, exhibit a rock-steady hand on the helm inorder avoid any erosion of the confidence that others have in you and in the business.


2. Genuinely earn the trust of your people


The credibility you earn through maintaining composure and focus must be backed up by the trust you earn through the way you deal with your people, collectively  and individually. You may be feeling highly stressed by the environment, but you cannot allow this to undermine your leadership behaviours. The need for communication now is greater than ever like the virus itself, damaging rumors multiply in uncertain climates. Clear, honest, candid communication is the only salve for people’s fears. Your authenticity is their bedrock. Having compassion and empathy for the threats they perceive is just as important as recognising, appreciating, rewarding and celebrating their accomplishments. Perhaps most important of all is the trust you earn by genuinely living your values and walking your own talk, all day, every day.


3. Be courageous


Many leaders talk about ‘the loneliness of leadership’. Seldom is that aloneness more present than in difficult times. Through turbulent times that seem bent on breaking them and tearing their business apart, these leaders feel as if they, and they alone, are carrying the entire burden of sustaining the business. At the same time, they feel a deep responsibility for those they employ.  This is where the leader’s courage is truly tested and tempered. Your people want to know that you are realistic about the threats to the business but if they see your fear, you lose them and, if you lose them, you risk losing the entire business. They expect you to make - and act on - the tough decisions necessary for the survival of the business.


Procrastinating and avoiding taking on ‘the tough stuff’ not only puts the business at risk but seriously damages your capacity to be effective. Reach out to fellow CEOs in your network. Share your confidences with them. Now, more than ever, leaders need one another to help them survive.


4. Prudently manage ALL your resources


Business success at any time is hugely dependent on productivity optimising output from every unit of input. In difficult times, the leader’s role in ensuring that every input is delivering maximum value is vital. People are always your business’s single most important resource. Plan to cover the most critical functions in case of widespread absenteeism from illness. If you haven’t already done so, start cross- training now in order to provide some bench strength. Ensure that your procedures manual is up to date in case an untrained person has to step in. Manage every input: cash, raw materials, energy utilised, people’s time and brain power, where effort is applied, the deployment of tools, training, equipment and information, errors and rework, process efficiency, re-handling, work in process, and more. You need to know where and how to cut back if you are forced to retrench. Ensure you know and deliver on your customers’ immediate priorities and confirm your suppliers’ ability to deliver on time. Anticipate supply-chain delays and make contingency plans to handle shortfalls. The challenge is to manage every resource in your business in order to optimise your productivity during the crisis


5. Never lose sight of your vision


Through all the trials and stresses of leading in difficult times, the leader is the one who can never lose sight of where the business is headed. Reaching the vision may be more challenging than ever and, in the short term at least, survival itself may be the name of the game. But, even when all your priorities are focused on survival, hold on to your vision. Keep it out there for others to see so that survival is always seen as a stepping stone, not the endgame. Constantly emphasise the connection between your intense focus on productivity and making your business smarter, leaner, faster, and better equipped to compete and thus poised to win when the recovery kicks in. As you look to the future, challenge your own business model will it still be right for what lies ahead in the recovery in your industry or market? In short, resist the urge to ‘circle the wagons’ and simply hold on for dear life through the storm. Instead, look for smart innovations and initiatives that will equip you to be ahead of the curve when the dark clouds eventually clear away.


If you look back in business history over the last few decades, it becomes apparent that most of the companies that emerged from difficult times stronger and better equipped to succeed had one thing in common: leadership that put these five principles into practice during severely challenging times. This combination of ‘hard’ (business oriented) and ‘soft’ (people-oriented) leadership behaviours is the proven formula to achieve not just survival through the crisis but long-term prosperity beyond it.


And isn’t long term prosperity the ultimate measure of truly effective leadership?

Read our collection of blogs and articles about leading through uncertainty.


KDVI Writer's Colony, 2020

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Article Comments

Ann Houston Kelley

Mar 23, 7:20 PM

Excellent advice for leaders during these times of a "new normal".

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