Steering the business through times of difficult can be hazardous, and the price many a leader pay is higher. It is a no-brainer that the company must adapt if it is to survive, later remaining competitive and make profit. Leading in such times might require asking employees to confront painful issues and operate differently from the beliefs and habits they hold dear and are accustomed to. Result? Some of the employees will work to derail your efforts and take that as an opportunity to replace you and ease their pain.
As a leader, you are challenged to frequently move back and forth from the control room to the dance floor. Asking the hard questions and making the hard decisions. It might not be your best times with the employees, but it is important that you keep checking on them – lest you wake up and someone else would have replaced you. Have you ever been removed or pushed aside? It happens often when the times are hard, and the blame is all on the leader. Sometimes, it is the business seasons that would have changed, and your long periods of considerable success is crashed and burned overnight.
When the times are not favourable for profits and better results, leading any institution is living dangerously. In the football world, this is seen daily, once great leaders with a track record of good results are easily forgotten and blamed for all the mistakes of the football club – exonerating everything else that might have led to such poor performance. In industries, it is no different, once great leaders are easily forgotten, maybe because the share price might have gone below the set standard. When results are bad, you become the enemy of even those who once praised you, and you become the reason why everything is not working. What is easily forgotten is that times will not always be good, bad times will come. King Solomon once wrote, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”
Leadership has its dark side, and people in executive positions must pay the price for a flawed strategy, as well as bad decisions. However, something more might be at work. In difficult times, there is a high degree of risk for any leader, especially when change is called for – as change calls for people to transform their beliefs and habits. Technical changes are easy to manage as they require applying existing know-how and the organisation’s current problem-solving processes. However, adaptive change, the change needed in Zimbabwean companies, requires a new set of skills and understanding to provide organisations with solutions that will help them navigate the challenges – and this change is riskier.
Adaptive problems require individuals throughout the organization, from the shop floor to the CEO, to alter their ways – sadly the people themselves are becoming the problem. With the current prevailing problems in organisations, trying to respond to adaptive problems with a technical fix will not yield results. Technical fixes are temporary, and they might result in more adaptive and stronger problems. To make real progress, organisational leaders must ask themselves and the other members of the organization to face deeper issues and accept solutions that may turn the organization upside down but for better results. It is no point to ask other members of the organisation to accept the solutions when as a leader you do not allow yourself to be part – for no one will ever take you seriously.
Ignorance has no place in difficult times, as a leader you cannot choose to concentrate on self and forget about the future of the organisation. Nothing lives forever, the difficulty will come to an end, so get to the dance floor and dance with everyone else for employees to believe in the music that you are producing or asking them to produce. Danger lurks when you do not dance with everyone else, before you know it, each employee will be producing his or her own music with the organisations resources.
The dangers may take many forms. You may be directly attacked for all the bad things happening to the organisation. You might even be blamed for the weather! Character and style will not be spared. You may also be overwhelmed and diverted from your goals by people bombarding you with day-to-day details – keeping you busy and pre-occupied. Eventually, these dangers will lead to your authority being undermined – creating problems for yourself as people try to restore familiarity and protect themselves from the pains of adaptive change. Human beings always want comfort and anything that takes away the comfort is enemy, so as a leader when you bring in new systems and approaches you become an enemy. Not to become a real enemy, also dance to the tune of the systems and approaches you would have introduced.
How then do you protect the organisation and yourself when times are difficult? There will never be one solution to all the challenges that organisations are facing in Zimbabwe. A solution that works in one organisation might be a disaster in another. Often, leaders are knocked off course or out of action when tough times prevail – this happens daily. There is always an external threat and an internal threat, so to protect the organisation and yourself, the approach to the solutions must be both external and internal.
Operate on the dance floor and in the control room – In the midst of action, it is important to maintain perspective. When you lose perspective, then you are headed for disaster both for yourself and the organisation. Constantly scan the horizon whilst in the control room and go back to the dance floor to inspire and give hope to others. Where there is no hope, nothing of significance will ever be produced. People need to be constantly given hope in difficult times, for hope is the only thing that will keep them moving. Those who lose hope lose everything – ensure that your organisation will have hope no matter the circumstances. See that which many will not be seeing!
When business is bad, it is not time to hide in your office as a leader, but a time to operate more on the dance floor. Fingers will be pointed at you but keep focused to the dreams and the future of the organisation.
Engage others – It’s very tempting to go it alone on the journey of looking for solutions when business is bad, but no one man will ever produce great results. Ask for help when it gets overwhelming, you might get the answers from an unexpected place and from the least qualified people. A story is told, “Once upon a time John and his young son Philip were driving through town when they came upon a traffic jam. Up ahead they could see that a large semi-trailer with a high load had become wedged under a railway overpass.
The father experienced only the frustration of being held up while his son experienced a world of unbelievable wonder. There were police everywhere and fire trucks, a big crane and even a train that was forced to stop at the approach to the bridge.
While John sat in the car fuming, his son Philip could no longer contain himself. He sprang out of the car and raced away towards all the important people in suites, wearing yellow hats, all trying to figure out what to do.
“I know how to get the truck out!” he cried out. The men were more concerned for the boy’s safety and shooed him away. The young fellow persisted until he found someone who would listen – all the time dragging an exhausted dad behind him.
“What do you think we should do?” asked the man. “If you want to get the truck out all you have to do is let the air out of the tires!”” Because you might have been looking at the same problem for too long, you might not be creative in your thinking, but concerned about following the technical fixes that you have been using in your organisation for long. Help comes from everywhere, never look down upon any member of the organization when looking for help.
Manage conflict – when things are not going well, tempers will be high, and many leaders make bad decisions or moves due to the rising conflict. The conflict may evolve as resistance to change, or it may evolve due clashing viewpoints about how the business should deal with the challenges. Everyone has a reason to blame someone for poor results, and progress is stifled as people look for reasons why things are not moving. In the football world, when a team is losing, and it has no composure to remain focused on the goal, you note players attacking one another or attacking the referee – as they fail to identify the major reason for them losing. As a leader, whether the times are good or bad – even though conflict is on the rise when business is bad, be a good conflict manager. Learn the skills to manage conflict – as there might be opportunities in the conflict.
Jack Welsh, former General Electric CEO, once said, “Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions and gut calls.” As a leader, if you have calculated the impact of your decision and you are convinced that everyone will emerge victorious, then do not be afraid to make the hard calls and decisions when business is bad.
Batanai Kamunyaru is a business writer, speaker and coach. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or +263 718 852 489.