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The Secrets of Leaders Who Step Up in Bad Times

Posted on: September 8, 2009

Leading in shocking times

Because I have lived in shocking times, I’ve spent some time thinking about leadership when the situation is hopeless – by any objective standards – hopeless.

It is a horrible time to lead. People want us to make the problem go away.  And we cannot make the problem go away.  When the ‘people’ are angry, they can become quite abusive.  They can make a horrible situation worse.

Though not horrific, in today’s world, we get a lot of low level practice of this sort in airports.  It is quite interesting which passengers take the lead and which do nothing.  I might be wrong, but some people seem scared to take the lead.

We also get practice in economic downturns, when we have the unpleasant task of announcing and administering budget cuts.

What can we do as leaders when the situation is hopeless?

Here is what we must NOT do

Get angry ourselves.

Our dignity is not the point here.

Tell people not to be angry, scared or dejected.

They are not fools. The situation is bad.  We can show respect and listen to their emotion courteously.

Tell people to be rational.

They might sound irrational but rationality is not the issue.  They understand – as we do.  We all feel foolish already.

Ask people to share the blame.

Rehearsing our mistakes is not going to take us anywhere.

Lament their disorganization or lack of initiative.

Well, if you believe something should be done, do it!

Here is what we can do

Be calm and pay attention.

Repeat the goals aloud.

Be positive and realistic. “Our first preference is X. If we cannot achieve X, then we want to achieve Y.”

State our shared values out loud.

People want to know they still belong to the group and the group still belongs to them.

Gather resources and note the strengths we have among us.

Reassure people that we will use our resources and strengths well.

Identify actions and ask people to take charge of what they are uniquely able to do well.

When we are informal leaders, as we might be at an airport, we might hesitate because we are not “in charge”.  We might also hesitate at the “edges” of our job when we aren’t paid to do more than what we are doing.

But isn’t it easier to do something than to sit and fret?

Do you take charge when a situation is hopeless?  Are there some steps I am missing or that I have got wrong?

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