Leading in turbulent times

By Steve Harrison, Chairman of Lee Hecht Harrison

When I was asked to write this article, I immediately thought of two or three particularly turbulent times during my long career when the demands on leaders – including those above me – were overwhelming. They were driven by unique crises, causing these people to perform as never before. More on this later. More importantly, I recalled what experienced leadership experts – real role models – have written and said about leading while in the eye of a storm. In a recent white paper authored by LHH’s founder, Bob Lee, he made this observation: “Leadership is extremely complex and very situational…It’s a messy world out there. It can be much messier than the leaders prefer. The leader’s world can be a swirl of uncertain, paradoxical and contradictory facts, relationships, and goals – a non-stop, four-dimensional puzzle with no picture on the cover of the box. Leadership doesn’t exist in the abstract, but only in connection with a particular context. It’s a performing art.”

While the specific tragic events surrounding 9/11 are markedly different than those we’re experiencing now, we can all agree that now, as then, there is trauma, drama, and an urgent call for a special kind of leadership – an “above-and-beyond” kind of leadership.

Shortly after 9/11, Martha Finney published a book titled, “In the Face Of Uncertainty.” She interviewed people in prominent leadership roles and probed their perspectives on leading during turbulence. Here are some quotes:

John Alexander, President, The Center for Creative Leadership: “You have to be decisive and ready to take rapid action, but you have to engage others, [always conscious of] not only what’s ahead, but who’s there at your side and who’s supporting you from behind. You have to use your gut and your instincts and draw from your creative side as fluently as you access your analytical side. Energy and stamina are among the criteria. [There’s a premium on] the ability to modulate your behavior to fit the context and the audience.

“Giving mixed or confusing or contradictory messages can get you in more trouble in today’s world than anything else. What people want most are leaders who they can trust – leaders who are authentic, straight-talking, truthful and effective.”

Alexander talks about the importance of “knowing yourself; being acutely aware of your surroundings, of what you’re saying and the way you come across. It’s almost like having a running conversation with yourself even as you’re performing. This is very difficult. It’s why so many top leaders fail. It can be exhausting and frustrating. You can be misunderstood. The tolerance for error is narrower, so there’s no room for error – particularly true in this new environment.”

Alexander makes a passionate case for leadership accessibility and visibility during turbulent times: “Leadership is not a solo act. If it ever was, it certainly isn’t anymore. Also, everyone, especially at a time like this, would like to think he or she works for a higher purpose. Part of the job of leadership is to show a connection to a higher purpose”

While attending the Global HR Congress in London last year, I heard Charles Handy refer to the current challenges as tantamount to “navigating through seemingly endless whitewater.” Today’s leaders have barely come to terms with the realities of the “new normal” in the workplace: ethics and compliance; globalization; the innovation imperative; the leadership imperative; stress and work life imbalance; security; shareholder activism; sustainability/environmentalism/CSR; and more. And now, superimposed on the “new normal” are the global financial crisis, confidence crisis, a recession, complete with over one million jobs lost, and a rapidly transitioning federal government. Unprecedented change.
Ms. Finney interviewed transition thought leader, Bill Bridges, for her book. Here’s what she heard: “The problem is our ability to process change at the rate it’s coming at us. Changes have been happening quickly and frequently. We’re still trying to get through one transition when another change hits us. Most of us are running a severe transition deficit, and most organizations are, too. Leaders need to play more of an active role in preparing an organization for transition and leading it through the phases.”

Bridges places a premium on a leader’s resilience: “Beyond whatever doubts you have, you must have an underlying faith that you can start all over…”

Now, for my own personal perspective. During my career, I’ve come to know a little about “turbulence” in the business context. Ten of my fourteen years of corporate life was as labor relations director for a division of Tenneco. Strikes (legal and illegal), grievance meetings, labor contract negotiations, arbitration were the order of the day. 

During my tenure at LHH, I witnessed the courage of our leaders at all levels during the World Trade Center bombings of 1993 and 2001. We had offices in those buildings. And, in a way, the very nature of what we do as outplacement consultants positions us near the decision hub as corporations are downsizing. These episodes are themselves traumatic, turbulent events as people lose their jobs and leaders struggle to maintain equilibrium in the aftermath. And, five years ago when a crisis briefly hit our parent company, I found myself on the steering committee which was charged with leading the (successful) effort to survive the setback.

Now, as our country is reeling from its new, “new normal”, I once again observe leadership when the heat is on. For me, the keys to leadership effectiveness in turbulent times are agility, adaptability and, of all things, intuition. We often talk about leadership styles – authoritarian, collaborative, charismatic, servant, inspirational, etc. I’ve noticed that the successful “whitewater navigators”, regardless of their naturally predominant leadership styles, display a unique talent: the agility to adopt and embody most or all these styles during any given day, or within any given hour! Collaborators need to be decisive; authoritarians need to be collaborators; quiet and humble leaders need to communicate as never before; noisy leaders need to know when to “zip it up,” cerebral or process-oriented leaders quickly learn that turbulent times place a premium on managing flexibly – often from the neck down. And if all this weren’t enough, ironically, during the very time when they’re reacting, the effective whitewater leader, to quote Colin Powell, needs to anticipate – to “see around corners.” As one CEO said, “I spend half my day thinking: What am I not thinking of? What could possibly catch us by surprise?”

When it was my turn to be interviewed, I proposed this to the author:

During turbulent times:

  • Avoid at all cost evidence and symbols of hypocrisy or mixed messages.
  • Exhibit an unflagging sense of purpose.
  • Convey a sense of hope, because sound leadership is what gives feet to hope.
Leadership is indeed a performing art!

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