Leadership in Troubled Times: Eight Important Lessons

Posted on March 03, 2011

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Lesson One: Stay in Control of Yourself

“Tough times tend to strip away our security and sense of control.  In a crisis most of us tend to be like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.”

  • You can’t control anyone else, the only person you can control is yourself.
  • Step back, pause, take a few minutes to breathe, remember the big picture.
  • Remember: your staff will look to your reaction before formulating theirs.

Lesson Two: Get the Facts, Think it Through

“Respond in haste. Regret in sorrow.”

Gather information…

  • Sort out rumor from fact.
  • Double-check your sources.
  • Is this a pattern or an incident?
  • Who else is facing this situation?
  • What happened the last time?

Lesson Three: Hear Perceptions, Expand Your Base

“The changing needs of customers is probably the one area of leadership most impacted by the current economic downturn and requires a leader to listen more intently than ever before.”  –Dennis Dearden, 2010

  • Hear from principals, teachers, parents, community, and students.
  • Assess the perceptions of your various customers.
  • Review your assumptions.
  • Tap into the power of networking.

Lesson Four: Keep the Hope Alive

“The first task of a leader is to keep hope alive.”  –Joe Batten

“Being forward looking was the #1 quality selected as being important for the executive level. It was also selected as the one quality that most differentiated leaders from team members.” –Jim Kouzes

“What separates a leader from a follower is that the leader doesn’t get caught up in the problem. The leader sees the big picture and keeps moving toward the vision.” –Chris Widener

  • Keep your eye on the big picture.
  • Remind people about the great purposes of your work.
  • Remember that people are success-oriented.
  • Clearly share your vision of the future and refer to it often.
  • Find and highlight what’s working.

Lesson Five: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

BEWARE: a communication vacuum always sucks in rumors, speculation, and worst-case scenarios.  It breeds discord and feeds the nay-sayers.  Fear what will fill the void.

My advice: get out in front of your tough times by communicating. . . honestly, consistently, frequently, candidly, and by using multiple venues.

  • Communicate TO “customers” to keep them informed with accurate information.
  • Communicate WITH “customers” to check perceptions, listen with an open mind, build empathy, and detect early warning signals.
  • Communicate WHAT?: The big picture, your vision, the actual facts, good and bad, clear expectations, progress, your reassurance and support, and success stories.
Lesson Six: Empower Your Staff to Act

“During tough times many managers revert to micromanagement. The very factors affecting employees are at work on the manager in these cases. Fear is breeding a need for control. This translates into micromanagement. It is unproductive and leads to a further demoralization of the workforce.” –Martha Cassaasa, 2011

Empowerment builds confidence and trust:

  • Define clear goals
  • Coach your staff to assume ownership
  • Recognize their worth
  • Make them feel like a valuable asset
  • Celebrate success

Lesson Seven: Never Waste a Good Crisis

“A crisis provides the leader with the platform to get things done that were required anyway and offers the sense of urgency to accelerate their implementation.” –Bill George

“Challenge is the greatest opportunity for greatness!” –Jim Kouzes

  • Consider what is most important.
  • Prioritize time, nurture relationships that really matter.
  • Anticipate to get out in front of the crisis.
  • Place a premium on innovation.

Lesson Eight: Stay in Touch

“But we won’t know when leadership is needed and which style is necessary if we are disengaged and slack-off…” –James Kerr, 2010

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.”–Dwight Eisenhower

It is the leader’s responsibility to:

  • Engage the team in the project
  • Direct them when they falter
  • Support them when they overcome adversity.
  • Empower them when they need us to get out of their way.

So How?

  • “Drive-bys”
  • “Management by walking around”
  • Hold frequent “one-on-ones”
  • Coordinating meetings
  • Keep your door open

Additional Leadership Tips

Top Five Mistakes Leaders Make in These Troubled Times (Eileen McDargh, Jan 2009):

  1. Become reactive and reactionary.
  2. Huddle with only the corporate folks.
  3. Cut.  Cut.  Cut.
  4. Go after new clients and customers.
  5. Do more with less.

BONUS Mistake:  Buy into pessimism.

Leadership in a Crisis — How to be a Leader (Bill George, Feb 2011):

  1. Leaders must face reality.
  2. No matter how bad things are, they will get worse.
  3. Build a mountain of cash, and head to the highest hill.
  4. Get the world off your shoulders.
  5. Before asking others to sacrifice, first volunteer yourself.
  6. Never waste a good crisis.
  7. Be aggressive in the marketplace.

Leading During Times of Crisis (L. Rolston & D. McNerney, May 2003):

Four basic elements to leading in times of crisis:

  1. Being visible and available.
  2. Communicating supportively, carefully, and regularly.
  3. Controlling one’s behavior and reactions.
  4. Giving the situation perspective to create alignment.
Ten Commandments for Leaders in Tough Times (Martin Newman, 2009):
  1. Be honest with yourself
  2. Be visible
  3. Tell it like it is
  4. Be clear
  5. Stick to Plan A wherever possible
  6. Be tough
  7. Use confidence to create confidence
  8. Balance enthusiasm and experience
  9. Seize the opportunities
  10. Learn to cultivate peripheral vision

Powerful Leadership During Tough Economic Times (Dennis Dearden, AASA, Jan 2010)

Four Principles to Solve the Leadership Puzzle:

  1. Develop leaders at all levels… including students…to find solutions to current challenges.
  2. Communities are looking to their school leaders to model the core values that have been developed together.
  3. Collect input from your customers… including students…to keep in touch with their changing needs.
  4. Ensure that systems and processes are aligned to vision, mission, goals, core values, and, most of all, meet the needs of all customers.

Seven Enduring Truths About Leadership During Crisis (Jim Kouzes, April 2009):

  1. Challenge is the greatest opportunity for greatness.
  2. The leaders who have the most influence are the ones who are closest to us.
  3. The one attribute that is the foundation of all leadership is credibility.
  4. Being forward looking was the #1 quality selected as being important for the executive level.
  5. You can’t change people’s behaviors by telling them–you have to show them.
  6. Helping leaders & employees clarify their own values had the greatest impact on commitment.
  7. Staying in love gives you the fire to  really ignite people, to see inside them, to get things done.

Top Seven Ways to Exhibit Extraordinary Leadership in Tough Times (Chris Widener):

  1. Keep your eye on the Big Picture
  2. Don’t get caught in the war or the friendly fire
  3. Be first to sacrifice
  4. Remain calm
  5. Motivate
  6. Create small wins
  7. Keep a sense of humor

“This is the eleventh hour…and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” –wisdom of a Hopi elder

To download the full PowerPoint presentation, click here.

Author: Dave Adamson. Dave started his career as a resource teacher in Kearns, Utah.  He served as Granite School District’s Special Education Director from 1993 to 2000.  He has also been a coordinator, principal, school services director, associate superintendent and most recently, the superintendent of the Park City School District.  After 35 years in public education he retired and, when not traveling, serves as a part-time consultant helping elementary and secondary teachers achieve order in their classrooms and satisfaction in their teaching.  In his retirement he also wrote a book for new teachers on classroom management that was published by Scholastic 2010.