Leading in Tough Times

What should leaders be doing to get businesses through 'tough times'? What really works?

Good question - maybe even a million dollar question right now. We set about a number of different activities - asking people, reading and researching - to try and find some answers.

Asking questions such as the following proved interesting (it might be worth you asking them of yourselves and your own businesses before you read any further)

-          In real every day life, what behaviours do you see people demonstrate at work when times are tough?

 -       What about the leaders at the very top of your businesses - if you’ve observed them lead your business during tough times have they been doing a good job or not? What are the differentiating characteristics you have seen?

 -        What about the middle managers and the first line managers in your businesses - again if you have observed them lead during tough times have they been doing a good job or not?

It makes sense to begin by thinking about how humans behave or react to what they perceive as a 'tough time'. Not surprisingly people talk about reactions to stress, change, challenge, pressure, success, failure...

A bit of research

What researchers suggest is there is no one way of behaving to these things. Psychologists such as Carl Jung would suggest that what people often do is behave in a way that might seem either 'exaggerated' or 'abnormal' to them.

What does make sense, is that a leader who can understand changes in the behaviour of their people during tough times, may be better equipped to adapt their leadership style to deal with these behaviours.

Researchers Susanne Bruckmuller and Nyla Branscombe have an interesting take on what makes a good leader during 'tough times'. Essentially, a woman... Or at least a leader who displays more stereotypically female characteristics.

Their research published in the British Journal of Psychology is called 'The Glass Cliff, When and Why Women are Selected as Leaders in Crisis contexts' and certainly makes interesting reading.

In a very brief summary - their research suggests that businesses are typically headed up by men, and this is typically thought of as a good thing during stable times or times of growth. However people’s stereotyped view of what makes a good leader during crisis shifts and favours typical ‘female’ stereotypes i.e. care, empathy involvement and communication.

Do you see these characteristics in your leaders?

Head, heart and guts

The next interesting set of ideas came from David Dotlich, Peter Cairo and Stephen Rhinesmith who have written an interesting book called 'Leading in times of crisis; Navigating through complexity, diversity and uncertainty to save your business'

These guys set about talking to a load of business leaders who offered a number of astute observations:

  • The world in which we do business is different - it's changed and leaders need to as well

  • We have selected and developed a good percentage of current leaders for a more stable time, and that the competence and skills that we need a leader to have at the moment are different

This throws up a whole heap of Learning and Development questions - not least whether we need to re-address and upskill all of our leaders. In their book they go on to suggest that the 'stable' world may now be a thing of the past, so we may need to re-address our thoughts about a 'tough time' being a passing thing - maybe these times are here to stay...

The book is worth looking at - they offer thoughts on something they call 'Whole Leadership' which involves the use of 'heart, head and guts'. In addition they offer '9 ways to navigate the perfect storm through whole leadership'.


Also worth your attention is potentially the slightly better known work of  Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones

In their work 'Why should anyone be led by you?' published in the Harvard Business Review, they talk about 'Authentic Leadership'. There’s lots of interest in the idea at the moment because it strikes a chord with a dislike of 'unauthentic' leaders.  

Authenticity is about being true to yourself, and about revealing yourself to others.  People will think you are authentic if they trust you, which in turn enhances the need for things such as reliability and honesty. 

Goffee and Jones argue that leaders need to know why someone would follow them. They agree that leaders need vision, energy, authority and strategic directionbut alsofour qualities which go together to make them authentic

  • Leaders reveal their differences and capitalise on their unique qualities

  • Leaders reveal their weaknesses, selectively

  •  Leaders use intuition and senses to gauge the appropriate timing and course of their actions

  •  Leaders practice “tough empathy”, giving people not necessarily what they want, but what they need to succeed

 Goffee and Jones have lots of interesting ideas in their research and believe that 'authentic' leaders should never be imitations. They need to 'know themselves' and 'show themselves'. Certainly worth a read.

So, after lots of digging around and talking to people there doesn't seem to be one answer to the question. There are however, lots of opinions.

Perhaps stereotypically female characteristics are important, perhaps we need to forget the 'tough time' label and accept a new reality, and perhaps we need to think about leading by demonstrating qualities such as honesty, openness and authenticity.

During my conversations one leader said to me - I wish people just leave me alone and let me get on and lead without offering advice all the time.

Maybe that's a good point too...