What the recession can teach us about leadership

In a recent call with a group of young leaders in an industry hit hard by the recession, their stories reminded me how critical leading is when times are tough. The litany of issues shared would make for a list of “worst practices in leadership”—all of them stemmed from workers feeling isolated from their managers and leaders.

Focusing on things that are not done well can often teach us faster and better about what people really need from leaders than focusing on things done well. With that in mind, here are some quotes from the people on my call:

• “I guess one of the things you can learn about leadership is whether you have leaders in your firm or not. I am concluding that we don’t have any leaders.”

• “What I have noticed as well is that those in leadership roles seem to be very fearful of what has been going on during these hard economic times. So, there hasn’t been much communication about anything. We don’t know who else will be let go or what accounts have sliced their budget. So, it has led everyone to look out for themselves.”

• “I would add to that by saying it has destroyed the collaborative nature of our work and our company. No one is really reaching out to help anyone else. So, the morale has really gotten bad and there is a lack of creativity and opportunistic thinking going on that could potentially get us out of this bleak situation.”

Everyone agreed that over the last four years, there has been a huge need for leadership—and also a huge lack of it. Leaders need to manage fear—their own and also their employees’ fears. Leaders also need to communicate the hard decisions and explain the unpleasant realities so that the people get a sense of what is really happening. The lack of communication around important information leaves a gap that employees will fill one way or another; what they often do is blow things out of proportion, making the reality worse than it is or has to be.

What also becomes apparent when times are tough is that the people need to be trusted that they, too, can do some of the thinking that goes into figuring out more creative ways of handling the tough realities.

The absence of this kind of trust—and the work of rebuilding it—figured prominently in many of the stories that were shared on my recent call, as the following quote from one of the participants attests:

• “We were experiencing some major problems with one of our accounts. It all stemmed from the lack of teamwork and the lack of trust among team members that resulted from people not supporting each other and things falling through the cracks. No one in leadership or management was stepping up to the plate to address these concerns, so I decided to say something to the owner of my company. Instead of being part of the problem, I wanted to see if I could be part of the solution. He thanked me for bringing it to his attention and I suggested some initiatives that could begin to pull the people together. We are now slowly getting back on track and I wish I had said something sooner. I always look to others for leadership when I need to look more to myself.”

A number of these young leaders are beginning to see that leadership can happen in many ways and by anyone who sees what the people need. If they are willing and able to step up and fill the gap, they find that the people can be very responsive. Here’s how one of them put it:

• “I was surprised to find that as I reached out to others and began to ask questions and listen to what was going on for them, they began to offer their ideas and help in addressing the issues we were all dealing with. Even my boss began to turn to me to ask for some help, which helped me build my confidence that what I was doing was good for the firm.”

No one wishes for a downturn, but the current economic climate is highlighting the need for and tasks of leadership in the minds of the young people I spoke with on my call—and many more like them. They see that they do have the qualities to lead others and that there are many different opportunities right in front of them to step up and fill the gap that only leadership can provide.

Tough times help us realize this opportunity like no other.

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