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Principles for Leading Effectively During Times of Financial Turmoil


05Oct 2008

This past week the business editor of my local newspaper called and asked me to write a column for business leaders regarding the current financial turmoil. The following is the article I wrote, and which can also be viewed at the newspaper’s website.

Few current business leaders have had to navigate the turbulent waters of economic difficulties that we find ourselves in today. But we can learn from those who have studied accomplished leaders and identified characteristics of successful companies that have weathered difficult times.

Richard Peterson, who researches the neurological responses associated with financial decisions, says there is a difference between fear and panic. Fear is largely anticipatory — assessing potential risks. Panic is characterized by an urgent pressure to act immediately. In fact, Peterson clearly reports: “It takes tremendous effort and fortitude to ‘keep one’s cool’ when frightened.” Panic then can lead to poor decision-making.

Jim Collins, in his classic study “Good to Great,” proposes that one key characteristic of leaders of successful companies is the ability to confront the brutal facts yet never lose faith. He states, “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

In his best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey identifies being proactive as the first core principle for successful individuals and business leaders. In difficult circumstances, he encourages leaders to ask: “What is our response? What are we going to do? How can we exercise initiative in this situation?”

Daniel Goleman, one of the foremost researchers of emotional intelligence, proposes that optimism is a core characteristic of successful leaders. Effective leaders “persist in seeking goals despite obstacles and setbacks,” and they “operate from hope of success rather than fear of failure.”

So how do effective leaders respond in times of uncertainty and fear?

Assess the potential risks.  The critical factor is to try to accurately assess the reality of the risks. It is crucial to differentiate between facts (what do we really know) versus conjecture (what might happen). What are the risks posed to your organization? To the best of your ability, determine how reality-based the risks are.

Consider constructing an “if-then” decision-making tree regarding the risks you see. Arrange the options from “best case scenario” to “worst case scenario” (the likelihood of both extremes is usually small), with the scope of possible outcomes in between. Then try to identify the results that have a higher probability of occurring and what impact they could have on your organization.

Determine strategies and actions that can manage the risks.  Individuals who focus on fear tend to stop at risk assessment. Leaders who are proactive seek to actively manage the situation and move to determining what steps can be taken to minimize the risk. “What can be done to minimize the probability of ‘x’ happening?” “If ‘x’ does happen, what can we do now to limit its negative impact on our company?”

Look for potential opportunities.  In addition to assessing potential risks to the organization, successful leaders also scour the marketplace for potential opportunities to capture. Your key competitors may have difficulties because of cash flow issues or not be able to access credit needed to finish projects. There may be assets (property, machinery, inventory) that can be purchased at a steep discount for cash.

Communicate proactively.  Lack of information increases anxiety. So take initiative to talk with your leadership team; let them know your thoughts and listen to their concerns. Communicate with your customers and your vendors; find out how current circumstances may affect them.

Model courage and optimism.  A “we will figure this out” attitude is contagious. These are difficult times. But the opportunity exists to step up to the challenges we face by demonstrating courage and resiliency.

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