Leading in Turbulent Times


The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic

– Peter Drucker

In my recent article on Jim Collins new book “Great – by Choice”,  I reported on Collins’ interesting findings that the most successful companies in times of chaos and uncertainty have a special tenacity to keep pushing ahead with their strategy – no matter what, and a philosophical orientation that says “we are in total control of our destiny” – no matter what.

I came across this related piece from the Duke University Corporate Education department, which I do feel connects with many topics I have written on in the past.

In their article, Rosemary Mathewson, Jared Bleak, Amelie Villeneuve begin with “Too often in times of turbulence, the temptation is to ”batten down the hatches” and seek safety by focusing on what can be controlled.  Typically that means turning inward and acting ”defensively” to avoid damage and minimize risk.  Caution and prudence, like most other leadership behaviors, are useful only in conjunction with the exercise of good judgment.  In stressful circumstances, leaders need to remember that not all risks are bad, not all opportunities for growth disappear, and a broad, externally-focused perspective is more important than ever.”

Here is their list on what matters most.

Looking Outside:  Scan the horizon, find value and create opportunities. 

It is always easy to get consumed with the short-term tactical issues – particularly when markets get challenging and financial goals seem harder to attain.  However, good CEO’s must always be scanning the horizon to see what’s becoming more important over time, and what’s getting worse over time.  They need to be able to connect the dots, and decide when it is time to call a new play or allocate resources in new or different ways.

Looking Inside: The danger of paralysis in turbulent times.

When times get tough, we all can get little scared.  We worry about our careers, our business, meeting our goals, and even about keeping our own jobs.   This can lead to a conservative  mentality that can further lead to paralysis and inaction.   CEO’s must become cheerleaders, calm the troops, and remind them that there is still a business to run, a strategic plan to implement, investments to make – and we need to keep going – even harder than before.  Also –just because a market is flattening or declining, does not mean there are no opportunities to pursue, or weaker competitors to defeat.  (This is a similar point to the one Collins makes in his book).

Looking Deep Inside:  meeting the challenge through personal leadership.

This third idea is an interesting and important one.  We as leaders make all kinds of pronouncements when the weather is good.  We are for WOW customer service; we think Quality is our top priority; that people are our most precious asset and that work and life must be in balance.   However, it seems absolutely true that you will not know what you REALLY believe until YOU are put to the test.   Warren Bennis calls these “the crucible moments” that really define what we stand for.   Our people watch us even more closely in times of stress, I think, because while they want to believe in our pronounced values, they are not ever fully sure what we are made of.  They are looking to see even the slightest retreat or compromise as a strong statement of our leadership worthiness.

The full article is worth the read.

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1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Strategy

One response to “Leading in Turbulent Times

  1. Len, this post strikes me particularly as I think about Personal Branding – not even in how we see our leaders, but in how we see ourselves. When we think about our driving priorities and choices on how to act during the times we are faced with life-changing opportunities or challenges — and then we see how we act in times of relative ease/prosperity — it’s interesting to note the difference. Who are we, really?

    Most of us don’t live in a state of constant danger–we live in the times between those eruptions. And I’d argue that it’s our day-to-day selves that hold the biggest clues to who we really are. If we can tap our leadership responses that we demonstrate during “command performances” and apply them to more of our daily work, what an interesting chain reaction that might cause!

    Thanks for your post!

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