WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, WHAT DO THE BEST LEADERS DO?
- Imagine at the end of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker gives up and dies, and the rebel army turns and runs.
- Imagine when the corporate helicopter crashes killing his top leadership team, Donald Trump quits.
- Imagine that you build a large company and then with only one major problem, it goes bankrupt.
- Imagine being burnt out with fatigue and then just pushing harder and it gets worse. Imagine feeling no hope of a better future…
All of these situations would be pretty bad.
We are watching leaders that have the potential to be great that are doing the wrong thing when a crisis hits. They attempt to drive a needed change through their organization and they are unable to make it happen. Often they have the right raw material and yet are not able to get the results. They do not set the situation up for effective handling of the crisis and change. They instead focus directly on the crisis and change without regard to the people and resources in the situation.
There is what I call the “Hollywood” image of a leader. It is a clean image with jets and cars and money and power and fame and…you name it! An event occurs and then over the course of a few hours, with a loud bang at the end (at least if it is an action film), the leader/hero get the result. Along the way, they break all the rules. I love those movies, but too often, they do not explain how leadership really works, what it really is and how to be a great leader.
Sometimes we have clients with “Hollywood situations” and those around them say that their leadership worked because of surface observations. The reality is much deeper, more complex and more powerful. When done right, it avoids needing a big bang and can become market dominance without having to be high risk or dramatic.
The reality is that leadership gets a job done in the right way, and in many cases, it is not glamorous. It is also typically an evolving story and not a single amazing stroke of genius. It may look that way, but the 10,000 times that Thomas Edison failed with the light bulb was more of a study in methodical persistence instead of genius. Leadership is typically more about persistent methodology than a flash, smoke and fire.
One of our existing clients started with us 25 years ago. He was very quiet, sat in his office and asked many questions of his people. When we first met with him, his sole goal was to retain his core team of six people. Today, he has the original six people on a 9 person leadership team. The company is over 100 employees. Even with the current economic challenges of the construction trades, he is doing well.
Nothing about him is striking. He does not dominate a meeting or room. Even today with the success he has had, he is very quiet. His focus has been to build a true team that can run the business and his sole goal is to bring the best out in each one of them as well as to create a need for them to work together as a team. His relationships with employees, competitors in the industry and personal relationships are some of the best we have seen. However, he will never be a movie since there is no bang, no smoke and no fire. And yet, he has handled some very tough situations smoothly and with a quiet firmness and strong values.
General Definition of Leadership
In our above examples though, do not confuse leadership ability with style. Style really has little to do with leadership. We have some clients that are quiet and others that are loud. We have some that look Hollywood and some that look like beggars. Common characteristics among great leaders are seen in the two quotes below:
“Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” Steve Jobs, Apple Computer
In The Servant, Jim Hunter defines leadership as “the skill of influencing people to enthusiastically accomplish common goals with character that inspires excellence”.
While these quotes are powerful, the challenge is that leading under a situation of crisis or great change is different. The time frames are shorter. The results needed are higher and more crucial. The emotions and true values of the people are more influential. Sometimes the leadership team individually handles the situation effectively, but the culture begins to fracture and the organization fails because the leadership team did not cohesively invest enough time in all areas of the organization. The carnage of these situations is traumatic.
The 18 Mistakes of Mediocre Leaders
As we have worked with top leaders over a quarter of a century, we have identified a number of mistakes that are critical to avoid. Even allowing one of these mistakes to creep into a leaders approach can turn championships results into a devastating unrecoverable disaster.
Mistakes With Strategy, Goals and Milestones
- Lower the bar for your people: mediocre leaders justify that extra energy, time and focus is needed to handle an impending change/crisis. Lowering your standards in other areas sounds logical to free up resources to deal with what is happening, but it is the wrong approach. Rather than encouraging your team and culture to become better, you end up allowing them to use the crisis/change to be the excuse to not perform elsewhere. This mistake will prevent you (or your leaders around you) from performing as powerfully as possible. It may also doom your organization once you resume normal operation.
- Choose one path and go, go, go…: This one is interesting because it can initially spark the team and get a powerful response, at least in the short term. However, if the crisis or change lasts for more than a short period, the extra efforts can cause fatigue, lower productivity and eventually flameout your most important relationships. Initially it feels good, but you and your team may realize you do not have what it takes to go the distance. There might have been a better approach, but now it feels like it is too late and it will cost too much to find the better approach.
- Constantly changing focus (or appearing to change the focus): one of the actions of a great leader is to go where they are needed. However, it can be perceived that the vision, goal or focus is changing. Whether or not that is really changing, that perception can cause much time and energy to be invested in deciphering the new direction instead of getting results. The entire culture may stop to figure it out and wait to be told what to do rather than acting on their initiative as individuals and as a team.
- No vision of “the other side” of the crisis: if the only vision is day-to-day and the current situation is crisis or dramatic change, people will burn out. They need to have a finish line, even if it is not the end of the line, so that they can feel success, take a deep breath and then buckle down for the next section of the race. Without a vision of what it will be like after the crisis/change, and milestones, it becomes a painful endurance contest that few people are willing to go through. Even fewer are able to be very productive in this type of scenario.
Mistakes In Teamwork
- Forget your purpose: we asked a leader going through crisis why they were willing to deal with the pain and agony of the crisis situation. Confused silence followed with “I don’t know”. They had forgotten why they had started the business, why they were living their life in this type of environment and what they were truly best at. They had become confused about their role in their own life and therefore were unable to bring their entire personality, passion and values to their career. Losing the reason for your place on this earth is the same thing as losing yourself. It is impossible to be a great leader under those conditions. Your team will see that you are just going through the motions. They may begin to question their purpose.
- Quit using teams and focus on individual results: the culture of a business can feel if actions are not thoughtful and being half heartedly done by the leadership team. Mediocre leaders in crisis and change have a tendency to confide in a few individuals and place more burden on those few individuals. This leaves out some of those people best suited to help. You lose the power and synergy of teamwork. It also increases the number of mistakes made and lowers the buy in of the organization to what must be done.
- Settling only for incremental changes: incremental changes work well in certain environments. When there is dramatic change or crisis, mediocre leaders focus on baby steps when you need that home run, and right now. Incremental improvement along the way is fine, but unless you are trying to also get that game changing approach in place, then there is no chance it will happen and it may become “too little, too incremental, and too late”. Most game changers need a cohesive thinking through, buy in, and implementation by the right team.
- Not holding those on the team accountable for getting results: recently we had a team where the less experienced leaders would say, “they won’t do it” or “they can’t do it”. Whether that is really a blame or accountability issue, it comes down to the fact that we are responsible for our direct reports and those around us getting results. Great leaders take responsibility for those around us. By not taking being accountable for their results, we are saying that we do not really want to be leaders.
Mistakes Through Attitude and Values
- Just push harder: this is the traditional approach of many mediocre leaders. When they see the crisis or change, they increase the pressure on the employees, customers and/or suppliers. At best, it may be viewed that the leader is having a bad week or month. At worst, relationships begin to fray and there is unwillingness on those you need to continue striving to get the critical results.
- Lose your cool: although similar to Mistake #1, this is more dramatic with temper tantrums, yelling, or displays of anger or frustration. While all of us get upset at times, if you are viewed as responding this way to crisis and/or change, your team may be unwilling to alert you to possible problems. They may view it as your job to recognize an issue and fix it rather than seeing it as a collective leadership team key deliverable. Burnout gets worse for leader and followers.
- Quit following rules: as we mentioned above, the movies are fun to watch when you have a hero (leader?) breaking all the rules. Whether or not individual hero’s are really leaders or not, in the real world if leaders break the rules too much, it creates to much chaos and uncertainty for the team and culture. Breaking the rules should only happen when it is clearly needed, agreed to, and the leadership team understands why it is happening. This mistake can also cause others take advantage of “why do I have to follow the rules?” mentality and multiply chaos.
- Values are optional: intense pressure is one way to test individual or company values. Some of the leaders we have seen, when they violate this rule, lose some of their best people. It may not happen right away, but it causes a breach in trust where the bodies of the people may be there while their hearts and brains are trying to determine how to go somewhere else. One leader recently violated this rule. He has felt the atmosphere of his team change. We are trying to help him repair the damage, but it may not be possible.
- Reinforcing how bad the situation is: In the North Carolina mountains at scenic rest stops when families get out, if there is no guard rail, families have a tough time getting great pictures. The majority of the energy of the parents is making sure that no one falls off of the cliff. If you continue reinforcing how “unsafe” a situation is, a mediocre leader can end up focusing the energy of the organization away from fixing the real problem since they are worrying about “falling off of the cliff”. In some extreme cases, it can also put people in back up mode if they have too much “fear injected into their system”. This is a great recipe for negative productivity.
Mistakes With Skill Sets
- Inattention to what is going on “inside” the individuals, team and culture: while we need results that are measurable, the true raw materials are in the feelings/heart and thoughts/mind of your employees. Understanding what is on the inside allows you to get much stronger results on the outside both short and long term. We cannot settle for just focusing on outside results because our best relationships are with people, teams and cultures based on what is on the inside. In crisis and change, this becomes more important and mediocre leaders ignore this factor until it is too late.
- Changing internally slower than the external changes: some leaders speed up the pace during crisis and change, but sometimes it is still too slow. As someone once said about the bear, you don’t have to out run the bear, but you do have to outrun the slowest person. There is a fine balance between trying to move too quickly and not moving fast enough. If you move too fast, usually someone will tell you. If you move too slow, a mediocre leader will find out as the jaws of the bear begin to close about their behind.
- Give it more time: whether this is denial of the crisis or change or an intentional “lets wait and see and get some more information”, this response may cause a lack of confidence of those around you. They may be waiting for you to respond and if you ignore the threat or opportunity, you may be training them to address situations too slowly. They may see you as afraid to handle the issue. They may see you as not having the ability to see the issue and question your competence.
- Not having a Plan B – keep on doing the same things and hoping something will finally happen: this is similar to mistake #3. The difference here is that you believe you have the answer already and it will solve itself. While this sounds logical, our practical experience is that relying on one answer typically results in increased crisis and change. It results in shorter time horizons and more of your team going into backup mode. If you have the answer, great! If you do not, this mistake may seal your fate!
- Your existing leadership is not scalable – you may have some good leaders, but they do not know how they do it, are unable to teach it, or are unwilling to teach it. As the organization goes through crisis and change, leadership is not taught deeper and further into an organization. This causes the existing leaders to have to do more and without additional leadership help, the organization can fail since the leadership strength is diluted across a broader range of challenges.
When the Going Gets Tough, What Do Great Leaders Do?
The best leaders were already in motion. The best leaders had their people already moving and preparing for the crisis and change. They were developing their people and challenging them. Rather than just teaching skills, they were teaching attitudes. For example, we have one client where he is teaching his people how to be flexible and to move quickly in an environment where flexibility and change have not been valued in the past.
There was already a need for the team to be a team and continually improve. It may be the leader created that need, but when the crisis or change appeared, it simply brought to bear attitudes, skills, capabilities and actions already being taken to a higher level.
A great leader keeps their purpose fresh which allows them to easily bring it into any situation, whether it is for social fun or a challenging tough scary problem. It can be a touchstone for them and their team to be reminded that it is “not about the money”, but about something deeper and more important in life.
Great leaders in crisis and change also make it interesting. They make it more like a game or being part of a bigger story. It is more interesting to be part of the story of about the forest than just being the story of a tree (which can be lonely at times). It is more interesting being part of a championship team focused on the same goal than just trying to survive as an individual.
There are many tools to being a great leader during crisis and change. Some tools, such as persuasion are very powerful and “pull” results. Positional tools, such as “I am your boss so you need to do this”, are weaker tools since they usually “push” results. How and when they are used is different in each situation. Great leaders are constantly adding to their toolbox and learn when and how to use the tools.
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