How leaders thrive in trying times

Life is in seasons and stages; sometimes life seems to be on a rollercoaster, at other times it is topsy-turvy. Individuals, families, organizations and nations undergo trying times at different phases of their existence. The difference between those who are overwhelmed by difficult times and those who ride on the waves of the difficulties to greater heights is the handling of the times. Tough times are not designed to kill or destroy neither are they supposed to cripple or impair; they are intended to bring out the best in the individual, the organization or the nation. Difficult times should serve as a springboard to make the creative leader soar to a new realm. Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of New York when fundamentalists bombed the city on September 11, 2001, knew this and deployed it to become a hero.


Giuliani and September 11 crisis

Before the September 11, 2001, Giuliani’s popularity had sagged because his seven years as Mayor of New York City had been largely uneventful. He was in his last year in office when terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre in the city. While the president was tottering and largely undecided about what to immediately do, Giuliani wasted no time springing into action and taking charge of the situation. He coordinated the response of various departments, while also organizing the support of state and federal governments for the affected site. He gave direction and provided leadership when the city was in crisis and turmoil. His handling of the disaster became the defining moment of his public service career as it revived his waning rating among the city’s residents.

Giuliani had arrived the scene a few minutes after the second plane crash and he immediately took charge of the rescue operations which resulted in saving no fewer than 20,000 lives. Rather than leaving the people despondent, the Mayor gave them hope. He had said, as his response to the debilitating attack on the city, “Tomorrow, New York is going to be here. And we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be stronger than we were before… I want the people of New York to be an example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism can’t stop us.”

He was hailed by many for the way he handled the crisis. Six weeks after the attacks, Giuliani’s approval rating among New York City voters stood at 79 per cent, a great leap over the 36 per cent received a year earlier. This was later reinforced as he was named Time Person of the Year 2001 on December 24 of that year by the Time Magazine

Giuliani’s decision to stand firm and strong in tough times and his refusal to be cowed by difficulties was the turning point of his career in public service. From a lackluster and unpopular city mayor in 2001, he became a national figure who attempted to run for the office of the president.

For a leader who does not get bowed by the bad times, the sky is the limit.


What to do in trying times

Leaders adopt several strategies to weather tough times. These are some of them.


Define the problem

The first and most critical step to take when the situation runs contrary to expectation is to define the problem. What exactly is the problem? What challenges is the organization facing? Is it a cash flow issue? Is it a reduction in market share? Is it a leakage in the system? Is it a production problem? Is it a marketing challenge? Is it an unfavourable government policy? Is it a personnel problem? Until the problem is properly defined, solution will remain elusive. Operating under the umbrella of “Things are bad” does not give specificity to the problem and until the problem is pinpointed, the energy and inspiration to seek the appropriate solution will hang in the air.


Analyse the problem

For a leader who is determined to get his people out of a rut, the next thing to do after defining and identifying the problem is to analyze the situation. How did we get into this state? Is it something we could have avoided? How do we prevent a repeat of this? What effect would this have on our operations? How does it affect our cash flow? How does it affect our relationships with our publics? How do we move on from here? Has this happened to similar organizations in the past? How did they get out of it? What strategy do we deploy? Is it something we can sort out immediately? Do we need outside help or do we rely on our personnel to solve this problem?

Asking the right questions will lead the organization in the right direction. Without asking the right questions and answering them sincerely, the organization would just be going in circles.


Take responsibility

The leader should also take responsibility. He should come to the understanding that whether or not the situation would change is a function of what he does and what he chooses not to do. The leader should say to himself, “If things would change, it is up to me.” He should refrain from apportioning blames unless it is very critical to getting out of the situation. Even at that, he should do so sparingly so that he does not send a wrong signal to the team. According to John Maxwell, a good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.

A leader should demonstrate readiness to lead the effort to tackle the problem. By so doing, he communicates to the rest of the team that the task ahead is not beyond their capacity. This is all the stimulus that is needed for the people to change the tide in favour of the organization.

A good leader does not lead from the rear; he stays in front of the people to give direction. By rolling up his sleeves to lead the effort to right what is wrong, he instills confidence in his people and synergy is developed. With synergy, little becomes much and the seemingly insurmountable becomes achievable.


Have a clearly defined mission

The leader must not allow the current crisis and the exigencies of the moment to take his eyes off the mission. He must consistently go back to the mission and match up every action with the mission. He must not cease to ask himself if the steps being taken are leading the organization towards the actualization of its mission or steering it away from this. The mission must not be sacrificed on the altar of momentary succour. The leader should realize that there will always be emergencies but emergencies are transient, while the mission, the organization’s driving force, is perpetual. To jettison the mission for an emergency is to destroy the future of the organization. What is the worth of an organization without a future?


Keep hope alive

In times of crisis, people need hope; they are hungry for something to believe. They want an assurance that things would get better. They want to know that their problems would be solved. They want to be assured that their future is secure. So, they look up to their leaders because they believe that they are the source of hope. As a matter of fact, leaders are merchants of hope. One of their basic responsibilities is to dispense hope to their people. Hope provides the energy that keeps the people on the go; it builds self-confidence in them and enhances their self-esteem. When hope is lost, all is gone.

So, a leader must never fail to dish out hope to the people and this becomes quite important when things turn awry.


Communicate effectively

During a crisis, great leaders communicate with the people. Communication is essential because the people would want to know what is going on so that they can be sure of what steps to take.

But during crises a leader does not just communicate to inform, he communicates to transform. Therefore, the message to the people should be couched in such a way that those affected can take positive actions based on it. Without taking actions, nothing changes. So, a leader should communicate in a way to provoke the right action that would take the organization out of the woods.


Make hard decisions but be humane

For things to change a leader must make the right decisions. That things have gone out of kilter is an indication that at a point, either the organization made a wrong decision or failed to make the appropriate decision. Therefore, for the trend to be reversed, the right decisions have to be made. This may mean that some people would be adversely affected by such decisions but what has to be done should be done so that the company can get better.

However, a leader should never cease to be humane.  Courage in leadership should be balanced by care for the people. A leader should always be caring. So, decisions should not be taken in a way that would subject the people to unnecessary hardship. Without people, leadership loses its heart.