Monday, February 2, 2009

Great Leadership for Challenging Times

updated 3/23/2020

Here are 10 tips for leading in challenging times. They may not be any no better or worse than the rest, but they resonate for me, and I sincerely hope they will for you too.

1. Work hard and perform. Wow, isn’t that profound? I’m serious, though. As leaders, these are times that require sacrifice, hard work, and perseverance. This is how battles are won and great companies get turned around. It’s the collective hard work from each and every one of us, especially our leaders. No one’s going to put in the extra effort if they see their leaders coasting.

2. Radiate confidence and optimism. Another well known blogger said that if a CEO did this, it showed he was clueless. I strongly disagree. Our people need to see that their leaders are not afraid, that we believe in our organization, and that we are committed to success. In recent SmartBreif reader poll, most business leaders said the media’s focus on the negative is hurting businesses. I think it’s true for leaders too – fear and pessimism will make your situation worse.

3. Transparency. On the other hand… that doesn’t mean we hide the truth and sugar coat bad news. We can do both. Let people know exactly what the situation is and what needs to be done. Ask for their help. Yes, they can “handle the truth”, and once they get over it, will want to pitch in and be willing to sacrifice in the short term for the greater good.

4. Enlist your team’s help. Give them a sense of control, something to do to help make a difference, even if it’s just a small difference. In a crisis, leaders make sure everyone is focused and engaged.

5. Avoid finger-pointing. Don’t bad mouth your manager, your company, your competition, the government or your co-workers. Don’t point fingers, make excuses, or look for pity or a bailout. Focus on what you and your team can do, and offer to help your manager and co-workers.

6. Protect your employees. I realize employers are having to make some tough decisions in order to keep their business afloat. I've heard the stories about employers delaying or rescinding job offers after a candidate has already left their current employer. Just keep in mind, this too shall pass, and at some point employers will be competing again for top talent. Same goes for the way you treat your customers and the community.

7. Tough times are an opportunity to drive change and innovation. No one wants to listen to your radical ideas during good times – there’s no reason to change. Just be smart about it. I’m not talking about panic-driven change, rather well though out process improvements and innovation. It’s a great opportunity to ask “what if…”, and “why not?” The move to telehealth is a one example.

8. Now’s the time to collaborate across functions. Big problems require big, enterprise-wide solutions, so tear down the walls and start working across boundaries. Think task forces, committees, action learning, and Kaizen workshops. Even sworn enemies should be able to band together to fight off an invasion of a common foe.

9. Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. I’ve already written about it.

10. It’s a leadership development opportunity - really! As leaders, we all need to learn how to lead during tough times, and how to turn around a struggling organization. It’s a required course in your leadership curriculum. Ask yourself; ten years from now, what would I have liked to learn from all this? And more importantly, how would you like this chapter to read when your leadership biography is written?

Hang in there; stand tall; and LEAD.


Anonymous said...

Yes, leadership in good times and in bad times doesn't differ much. The main difference is a leader can be forced to carry out some tough actions (layoffs to take firs example), which wouldn't happen during years of prosperity.

That's why I wholeheartedly agree with that one:

"Don’t take advantage of low turnover and a tight job market to screw your employees, just because you CAN"

I wouldn't bet people will screw you as soon as they can only because you've screwed them, but they'll remember.

By the way: I still remember 10% salary reduction in one of my previous companies. No one left since it was in late 2000 but it was a serious hit on the performance for some time and people stopped thinking about the company as is was before (pretty much a family company although there were 150 of us).

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...

Dan, I'm really glad you added your down-to-earth and logical voice to the extensive advice out there. I hope the leaders you serve read your post. There is much wisdom there.

The only additional three pieces of advice I would add is to listen, listen, and listen. Something that leaders should do anyway, but even more now than ever. People need to heard, and sometimes that's enough.

Here's to the courage of the best leaders who can continue to lead well in these exceptional times. We need them.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on CEO optimism and confidence. When a disaster hits a family, the parent(s) try to "hold it together" for the kids, to keep up appearances. Even older kids look to their parents for calm, stability and reassurance.

Many people spend even more hours with co-workers than with family, so I don't see why a disaster in the business world should be handled any differently. Employees look to their supervisors for calm, stability and reassurance too.

The main thing is for leaders to offset the confidence with empathy and try to clamp down on uber-enthusiasm, because that can be annoying even when the economy isn't a disaster.

Anonymous said...

Dan - thanks for the two cents worth.

I love your first point "Work Hard And Perform." It is so true! The hard work we put in now is what will create a better future. The bad times aka current economic crisis is a direct result of what leaders did or did not do when times were good.

Conversely, now that times are bad, it is strong leadership actions and behaviors that will create a new and better future.

Dan McCarthy said...

Pawel -
Thanks for sharing that personal example.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -
That is such an important add! Sometimes just taking the time to listen is all people need.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -
That is such an important add! Sometimes just taking the time to listen is all people need.

Dan McCarthy said...

that last comment was so important I just had to say it twice. (:

Hayli –
I totally agree; no uber-enthusiasm! It shows a lack of empathy and is truly annoying. Dial it down to something like rock solid confidence.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,
Came across your blog while looking for 'leadership development processes'. I am in India, leading Leadership Development in a mid sized IT company. Its a particularly challenging time here since spending has been frozen and the employees (mostly as young as 5-8 yrs of experience) have not seen economic crisis before. We have too many managers and hardly any leaders. There is confusion, fear and anxiety ruling the masses and the mgt is as dejected. I see it as an oppurtunity, but how do I take advantage of the situation and create a process which enables mid level mgt to capture and capitalise on the learnings from this experience? Any advice is helpful..

Dan McCarthy said...

Bhavna –

I’m glad you discovered my blog, and I’m sorry to hear about the challenging times your company is facing.
I wonder if it’s too early to expect your managers to be able to reflect on what they are learning? It’s difficult to do that when you are in the middle of a hardship. In order to reflect and harvest these kind of learnings, we often need to distance ourselves from the event.
Right now, what your managers may really need are ways to cope, adapt, stay focused, and lead their employees. Do they have any role models at all? Someone they can aspire to emulate? Do they have the tools, skills, and models to manage and lead change?
Search my blog keyword change, and you should find a lot on that topic. Also take a look at the Personal Power Grid. If you’d like a copy, email me.
I wish you and your colleagues all the best!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff as usual Dan - I'm glad you "finally" weighed in on this one!

I've featured your post in my weekly Rainmaker 'Fab Five" blog picks of the week (found here: to share your thoughts with my reader.

Be well Dan!

Dan McCarthy said...

thanks, Chris!

Info said...

I agree with the author that the recession is really an opportunity for organizations and managers to drive change and innovation. Companies need to reduce costs but not at the cost of risking its future talent base. Another tip for leading survivor employees during an economic recession is to rethink the benefits strategy currently in place. Recognition and incentives should be consistently given to employees in order to boost performance while reducing costs. For example, recognizing employees who complete health and wellness goals can not only increase workplace productivity but will also reduce healthcare costs. Putting the power of recognition to work in your benefits strategy is a great way to take the challenge presented by the rough economy and turn it into an opportunity to improve. To read my article on the topic please visit

Vasilij said...

To comment on Confidence and optimism.

It greatly reminded me Jim Collins from "good to great" book.

He was talking about 'Stockdale paradox': face harsh reality, but be confident that you will prevail in the end.

It is such a simple truth, yet so powerful.

Anonymous said...

Saw these motivational tips on a job board they are from Bob Parson's website.

Dan McCarthy said...

Info, Vasilij, John -
thanks for the additional resources

Jan Middleton said...

Can't imagine someone believing that a leader without positive energy and outlook would be someone to follow.

A leader is fearless and goes into unknown territory with others following their lead.