Leading in difficult times

Oct 24th

Everyone knows good leadership is more important than ever in difficult times. But what does it mean in practice?

How leaders behave is highly visible to the organisation, in ways they often don’t realise themselves, and has been shown to be by far the strongest influence on how employees behave.

What are leaders in Tesco doing while media headlines analyse its collapse? Chief executive Dave Lewis has resisted the standard new CEO default of unveiling a ‘magic bullet’ strategy. Instead, he’s selling off the company’s four corporate jets and travels by train instead of limo, saying, “There’s an opportunity to go back to what made this brand great and a champion for the consumer.”

That’s easy to say. Making it visible in action and demonstrating it in person is harder. But that’s what will send a clear signal about belief, commitment and values, show people what’s important and change their perceptions and behaviour. That matters for employees even more than for customers. As Richard Branson once said, in a service business, employees should come before customers, because happy employees mean happy customers.

From Tesco’s Cheshunt HQ to Whitehall, the lesson is the same. What are Government departments doing in the context of uncertain resources and huge change? They have their default leadership reactions, too. As one senior civil servant said: ‘We’re having a lot of discussions: what is a leader? What are the 10 key qualities? We refine the definitions in focus groups, we analyse the problem.

‘But there’s much less focus on what we actually say and do as a result of every meeting; what leadership messages we will constantly and consistently repeat to give clear direction; what we will be seen to be doing personally.’

In tough times, reaching for analysis and problem solving gives a sense of purpose and action. But watch out for displacement activity. For leaders to look honestly at themselves and how their behaviour drives the culture can have more real lasting impact.

The top team may be talented executives having brilliant discussions, but unless the organisation experiences something differently as a result, it won’t influence how people navigate the crisis and how the organisation performs in tough times.

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