LEADERSHIP IN UNCERTAIN TIMES
Many of my clients are directly or indirectly affected by the downturn in the oil and gas industry. The oil patch has its cycles – just as we do in our lives. We all go through personal and economic ups and downs. During these uncertain times, I have observed what good leaders do to reduce anxiety and fear and make employees feel loyal and positive about themselves and their organization. I trust that some of these strategies will be helpful to you – both personally and organizationally.
1) Maintain health habits. In times of stress and uncertainty, you may not have time for rest, exercise, renewal or connections with good friends, but these are the times when such habits are needed most. During tough economic cycles, it is easy to conclude that you don’t have the money for celebrations, leadership development, or attention to people. However, this is when it is important to keep your personal and organizational health habits in tact, regardless of the external uncertainty.
2) Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. If you have ever had a loved one taken to hospital by ambulance, you know how crucial it is to be informed about what is happening. When things around us are uncertain and people feel vulnerable and overwhelmed, getting information is critical. They worry about cutbacks and layoffs. Tell people what is happening in your company, team or department. Even if you don’t know, tell people that you don’t know. Be open and honest. Open the lines of communication by listening for concerns and responding to these concerns as much as you are able.
3) Be creative. While uncertain and unstable times may not lead to your highest levels of productivity, chaos is a time to be creative. When Vince Deberry, Executive Director of the University of Oklahoma Center For Public Management, was threatened by layoffs and downsizing a few years ago, he asked his staff, “Do we want to be frozen by fear or do we want to be proactive in shaping our future?” They brainstormed ways to be more effective. Many of the departments were asked to come up with ideas to be more efficient. Leaders were assembled and resurrected solutions that years earlier were irrelevant, but now helped save the organization without having to lay people off. In the process of transparency, openness, and innovation, the organization actually took steps toward building trust that remains today. The uncertainty was seized as an opportunity to build a community. Today they have a thriving organizational culture of trust, collaboration, and innovation.
4) Take care of your people. Use times of uncertainty to invest in relationships and cultivate trust. Make deposits in the trust accounts of the people who depend on you and upon whom you depend. Real wealth lies not inside of your infrastructure, but inside of your people. Take care of people. It doesn’t cost any money to care about each other. Hard times remind us to go back to the basics.
5) Distinguish between what you can and can’t control. Three simple rules can help keep your sanity and serenity when facing any challenge: 1) change the changeable; 2) accept the unchangeable; and 3) remove yourself from the unacceptable. You might find it helpful to make two lists: first, list everything that is outside of your control and second, write everything that is within your sphere of influence. Then let go of everything in the first list and get to work on what you can change. Finally, remove yourself from any situations or relationships that are compromising your values. When you learn to do this, you will not only make a significant positive impact on the people who depend on you, you will also sleep better at night.
6) Keep your character in tact. It’s not the fierceness of the storm that determines whether we break, but rather the strength of the roots that lie below the surface. Character is the courage to meet the demands of reality. It means facing the truth – with your family, your employees, and your creditors and resisting the human tendency to withdraw and escape. Don Campbell, a rancher from Meadowlake Saskatchewan, taught me years ago, “When your wealth is lost, something is lost; when your health is lost, a great deal is lost; when your character is lost, everything is lost.”
7) Take time for reflection and learning. Times of change and chaos are good times for creative thinking and exploring new ways to lead your business and your life. Get some coaching. Step back and set goals, clarify what matters most in your life, and develop new strategies. Just as we must resist the tendency to withdraw in the face of crisis, we must resist the inclination to stop learning. The philosopher, Eric Hoffer, wrote, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
8) Maintain perspective. Whenever I think of hard times I think of my grandfather, who raised ten kids in a 900 square foot shack on a farm during the Depression. Besides growing sugar beets, Bill Stewart worked three jobs off the farm to support his family. My mother told me that once all they had to eat was potatoes for months. Grandpa’s family reminds me of the old adage, “I used to complain about having no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” Maintaining perspective also means realizing that you are more than your job, and that your job fits into a wider life context. After being laid off, a client of a colleague stoically maintained, “I’m only unemployed between 9 and 5.”
9) Find a new source of security: The “3 F’s”. When your outer world is disrupted, it is good to remember the “3 F’s of security: Faith, Family, and Friends. Faith is about finding a spiritual strength that is personal to you. Within your circle of family and friends you can find people who care about the person you are, independent of your successes and failures and will help you see the world with a new perspective. Faith, family, and friends are very precious. Living without them is like trying to survive a Canadian winter without a coat.
With spring upon us, make time to relax, open your heart, and pause to reflect: What matters most? What is truly important? How can you stay present to the wonders and beauty that surround you at this moment?