Leading In Adversity

Much is written about heroic leaders who save companies from oblivion and military leaders who deliver battlefield success.  So, in such dire and pressing times what exactly is it that these people do?  Here we look at some of the mainstays of successful leadership during adversity.

Stay Focused On The Main Task

If a company is loosing customers then it’s loosing revenue and ultimately will go to the wall.  Blatantly obvious when put that starkly but foreseeing downturns may not always be that straightforward in large organizations which is why it can appear that companies go bust ‘all of a sudden’.  Once the smart business leader recognizes that they are heading towards oblivion they can do one of two things.  They can jump ship before it’s too late or confront the problem head-on. 

Those that choose to stay will focus on nothing but curing the problem at its root and all they do will have that in mind and nothing else; in our simplistic example, bringing back previous customers and getting new ones.

Ignore What Isn’t Important

With focus solely on the main problem area and so much time and effort from the leader and key individuals it’s not unsurprising that less critical areas get left.  Are they ignored though?  Well, from the leader’s perspective they absolutely have to be. 

Non-key areas need to get cut quickly and that can include whole groups and employees no matter how painful that might be.  It also means non-critical functions get ignored, but are trusted to others to keep ticking along.

Galvanize Support

One individual knowing that the situation is perilous and certain actions need to take place is never enough.  The leader needs to garner support in all the right areas for his/her actions to be accepted and acted upon.  The leader has to work closely with a small number of trusted senior colleagues not only to get work undertaken but to take soundings as time progresses. 

External support too is equally important especially for quoted companies as perceptions on how serious a leader is about fixing things can carry more weight than reality.

Communicate With Absolute Clarity

Keeping the core messages clear, understandable and consistent is what all good leaders do under stressful organizational situations.  Whether they are dealing with colleagues, other companies, the markets or the press, staying on message is essential.  So what should the message be?  The honest truth is the only way forward and if it means really tough times ahead then say so. 

Trying to cover up or sugar coat the truth isn’t an option given the ease with which people can use all forms of communications technology and social media to find out what is really happening.

React To Circumstances

In anything but a very short-term problem resolution situation the leader needs to be acutely aware of the environment in which his/her business is operating.  Yes, they ought to be doing this at all times but when their business is trying to get back to something resembling normality they need to be looking for opportunities that allow them to accelerate the rescue.  It could be selling off non-core businesses or gaining positive press coverage that boosts credibility with customers.  All this requires the leader to stay alert and willing to make extremely quick, and at times, difficult decisions.


4 thoughts on “Leading In Adversity

  1. Hi Paul,
    Loving your work! In that last paragraph where you describe being open to opportunity, I would call that ‘responding’ rather than ‘reacting’ to circumstances. The distinction for me is that reactivity smacks of a default, or limbic, reaction to circumstances, which may result in old solutions that no are no longer sufficient. In times such as these, where we are increasingly faced with the unpredictable, responsiveness conjures up an ‘alive-to-the-moment’-ness and a consciousness that will generate new creative solutions. I am a strong advocate for spontaneity development, so that we can be much more responsive to our worlds. Jakob Moreno once said, “The thing that humans are least prepared for is surprise,” which, for me, is a call for greater spontaneity.
    Look forward to more posts from you!

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your kind words. Your point on reacting verses responding is well made and absolutely right. The instinctive reactions each of us make to a given situation might be appropriate but taking time to think things through taking into account everything around us and then responding is always the best solution. Responding may come up with the same solution as if we had simply reacted but it was thought through and that’s what counts. Being aware of the environment around you is so important for leaders and managers. It allows them to integrate all that external (to the business or group) information into their thought processes so that when decisions are made they consider as full a set of variables as possible. (This is starting to sound like the subject of a future post – must make some notes before I forget it!)



  2. I would say not leading by fear is a really important point to make. Times are hard, but taking an employee who works very hard already and treating that person as totally expendable is disrespectful.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Those who lead by fear often seem to get things done in the short-term but when the pressure comes they find out who is really behind them – nobody!

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