UK: Leadership Courage in Uncertain Times

Last Updated: 19 December 2012

When times are good, tough, aggressive, even bullying styles of "leadership" have been acceptable corporate behaviour. Business leaders have been seen as engaging in self-indulgent theatre rather than acting in the best interests of their company, business or people.

Times may return when this kind of behaviour will be acceptable again, but in these times it is not.

In today's environment – and for the foreseeable future – employees and managers need a calm, candid and focused approach to steering them through rough waters. In challenging times, the need is for strong communication skills, selfless, self-confident commitment to people, and an ability to take courageous decisions in an atmosphere of uncertainty: in essence, real leadership.

During economic dislocation, where the business challenges are raised a few notches, many "leaders" are exposed as lacking in ability to communicate or motivate. Many managers are, no doubt, competent in the traditional sense of strategic, functionally experienced, customer-oriented and financially savvy disciplines. But these people cannot rally a demoralised workforce and demonstrate the basic essential of leadership: getting things done through people.

Whether you lead a small group of people or a whole business unit or company, the years ahead will test you. Getting everyone in the same boat and rowing together has never been more important.

You've got to keep talking to your people. You've got to keep believing in them. You must be a confidence builder.


Fear of the unknown is a powerful emotion. Frequent and candid communication is essential in difficult times. People are not stupid, and a good leader knows that he or she does not have all the answers. Be honest with your people. Tell them what you do or don't know. Ask for feedback and opinion. Ask them what they know. Listen and make time for those who need to communicate with you. Focus on what's important to them, not you.

Great leadership depends on your ability to get behind the ocular of your people. Don't evade issues. Use all channels of communication open to you: informal discussions, employee broadsheets, and so on.

Make imperfect decisions

Speed is of the essence. There is no time for the eternal quest for the perfect decision. There is never a truly "perfect" or "correct" decision – and looking for such stalls momentum when you need to act fast. Make decisions and manage the consequences.

Moving forward and championing direction towards progress is much more important than the time-consuming practice of perfect planning. Encourage people who have the drive to move things forward. Back their decisions, even if they make mistakes. Support and encourage momentum.

Maintain high visibility

Jack Welch said that what he was looking for in leaders was the ability to energise, inspire and excite (rather than depress and control) at every level. To do this effectively you have to be among your people, at every level. Use your presence as an opportunity to communicate. Be approachable and set up impromptu discussions, whether in the office or on the shop floor. In uncertain times people are usually anxious. Don't let your distance add to the angst.

Make sure you connect all levels of the organisation through your visibility. Connecting sales team efforts to company performance, senior management and the boardroom ensures a collective approach to moving the company forward.

Manage yourself, set the example

Your behaviour in times of economic and corporate crisis defines the challenge. Don't be afraid to be seen as learning new things. The market has changed and good leaders adapt. Show this ability and let people know it's OK to try new things.

Manage less. Empower, delegate, then get out of the way. You can't do everything yourself. The key to a successful outcome from dislocation is your ability to nurture great leaders of the future. You can't do this if you are bogged down in the minutiae of micro-management.

Smile! Make time for people. Seek feedback. Be available, be personal and take an interest in other people's challenges. Apportion credit and take the blame. Show that sacrifices are shared (where do you sit on the plane?). Remember, if you think it is important and demonstrate appropriately, then everyone else will too.

Learn and relearn

Make sure you are informed. Read widely and use all sources of information available to you. Demonstrate that you are up to speed with all the latest news and data concerning your industry, people and environment. Be a source of external knowledge and use information that will support your position as a force for optimism in the long run. Meet and communicate with other CEOs and leaders. Be current and relevant.

Courage takes centre stage

There are few reasons for corporate celebrations these days. Successes, should you be in the happy position to have some, are being recognised discreetly and with reverence. The years of mindless corporate excess are over and it's now time to work again.

Management by cult and personality will change forever and it's time for courage in modern leadership to take centre stage.

Courage will define the successful leaders of today and tomorrow. Be a beacon for change and energise others to excel. Harness the power of your people. Articulate your vision and spark others to execute it.

Good leadership is not a monopoly of the distressed environment. It should be best practice at all times. In challenging times great leaders will do well and poor managers will be exposed. Courage should be placed firmly back in the lexicon of leadership qualities, in good times and bad.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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