leadership in tough times…..

tough timesI draw a huge  amount of inspiration from people who seem to be constitutionally incapable of capitulation. Had the privilege of listening to Jim Collins some time ago – he spoke of Steve Jobs and how in 1989 he had to be out of the organisation he had created. Well we all know of Apple’s position amongst the world leaders in innovation and in market capitalisation today. People like that are obviously very difficult to work with, unique and eccentric in their own ways. But they also have this great characteristic of refusing to give up, of bouncing back from the most difficult of situations. Truly inspirational! Resilience of the highest order you can say, but clearly much, much more.

Times are tough and will continue to be so for a while leading to a lot of hard decision making. Professionals as well as organisations are dealing with the emotional fallout of layoffs and cutbacks, of diminished expectations and dashed dreams. The recession has clearly been about failed institutions, failed systems and at best uninspiring, mediocre leadership. One has witnessed many companies struggling to string a compelling and coherent way out.

The situation is demanding answers of leaders. Since the objective is to create resilient organisations for sustained success, the expectation of the standard of leadership goes up a few notches.   The other reality to balance is about the very here and now approach – thinking long term will come only after the immediate survival has been taken care of. 

Given the paradox, what would be a good mantra for uncompromising leadership in tough times? Actions that would lead to an enormous amount of pride and hope, maintain employee dignity and commitment. Ultimately creating a high performance, highly engaged organisation. I will contribute through a few generic tips and as always, you all can add to enrich the discussion :

Inspire with realism and optimism – in hard times such as these, most of the staff goes through a combination of anxiety, fear and uncertainity. To inspire, you must be honest, authentic, credible – in a word, trustworthy. Leaders have to be frank, transparent and creative. One of the crucial attributes is to see and explain the situation as it is and not as you want it to be. Exude conviction and optimism that things will get better – positive energy is what you want to harness. 

Communicate intensely – Over sharing of information in tough times is a great idea. Otherwise anxiety breeds too much of negative gossip. Share as much and early enough, communicate a message of direction and a plan that supports progress towards that.  Look for small victories or turnarounds and share with the teams. Do not hesitate to speak about problem areas. It is amazing how people stretch and rally to overcome challenges if they are made to feel a part of it.   

Define measures of success – people perform best when there is clarity on what is expected of them and how success will be measured. Monitoring – and therefore restating expectations – is required over shorter durations and thus a very hands on, execution oriented approach is needed. 

External focus : there is absolutely no substitute for meeting customers, partners, consultants, consumers – whoever you can. All signs come from the external world and those connects are so central to revival that do not let such information be filtered through intermediaries. This helps define the way forward as well as course corrections. 

Emotional linkages – this is my personal favourite – establishing bonds with employees at an emotional level generates immense passion within the organisation. People then commit to the cause and stay in it together to see any difficult task through – collective energy is known to move mountains! I understand this is an extremely tough one and will happen only through a combination of transparency, personal humility and a genuine concern for the welfare of the team. Partly a natural skill as well that everyone may not possess!

I am certain there are so many other actions you can do. Actually most of the above is relevant to leadership universally, not necessarily during the tough times. Just the level of intensity may differ though. I have generally followed them and enjoyed the benefits. Will be interesting to know of your experiences!

happy uncompromised leading!


30 thoughts on “leadership in tough times…..

  1. Rajiv, this is definitely very apt and useful in tough times.

    However, it is rare to find people following all the points described by you. Even if 80% of this is practiced, I am sure there will be different motivation and enthusiasm within teams. It is a mixture of art and vision of a leader to restate the expectations, break them down into shorter goals and celebrate smaller milestones which is possessed by a few. Most of them are only interested in knowing if you have met the top goals which affect the overall scorecard.

    I also find that in tough time leaders tend to fall in trap of cost cutting. No doubt, cutting on expenses and laying-off is a common exercise in times of recession, but I have seen some leaders often getting too involved in budget cuts and layoff process that they lose sight of fundamental goals and objectives.

    In times of economic recession, ambiguity and confusion, leaders should be more focused (both internal & external as mentioned by you) and bring some creative ideas into action and navigate a strategic course that will ensure organizational productivity and survival.


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  6. While tough times do not last forever ,tough leaders do.The reason is not difficult to guess.While a weak leader is deprived of the materialistic tools (stock options,increments,bonusus) which he is familar with,the strong leader give his team the most important thing…Hope…,hope for a better future,hope that the contributions during the tough times will be counted,hope for growth together,acknowledgement for small acheivements in the form of a simple pat,high five or the occational hug….honest and unbiased feedback for improvement and most importantly smiles his way into the office instead of with a glum face…..

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  9. Rajiv, as usual crisp, relevant and to the point. While i tend to agree with most of the points that need to be practiced in good balance – the clincher is the the one about emotional quotient. This is one critical success factor for all leaders and possibly the most underrated. I havent come across, in my 16 years of professional experience – any formal modules or training around this for leaders /managers etc. Maybe one has to be born with this acumen!

    Recession, i feel, has been a great opportunity for all leaders to introspect. When the going is good often the lack of leadership gets masked under the momentum of performance and tangible rewards associated with it. However, it is the tough times when the EQ quality of the leader,stands up in good stead. It provides for the huddle required while the tough times abate.

    overall a good reading – Vinay.

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  11. I was reading something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your perspective on it is diametrically contradicted to what I read in the first place. I am still mulling over the diverse points of view, but I’m inclined heavily toward yours. And regardless, that’s what is so super about modern-day democracy and the marketplace of ideas online.

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