It takes a great coach to keep a championship team at the top of its game—someone to keep the strategy focused, to ensure players work toward new challenges and don't rest on their laurels.
But it's during a losing streak that leadership is truly tested.
As we've seen over the past nine months of economic turmoil, anxiety and mistrust spread like wildfire. When waves of bad news keep rolling in, fear can easily take control. While executives are human beings too, the difference is that great ones understand and respect the fear. Then they help guide staff and clients through it. They acknowledge reality, then work to utilize it to the team's advantage.
Great leaders are accessible, respectful, and direct. They start conversations. It's tempting to tell people what they want to hear, but managers can't shirk the responsibility to tell the uncomfortable truth. Business consultant Ram Charan, author of Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty, told Harvard Business, “In the Google era, people will find out the truth… Authenticity is always important but [in times of crisis] it's absolutely critical. If you soft-pedal bad news, they won't trust you. Worse, they'll miss the urgency of the situation and won't follow you.”
Anxiety is contagious, but so is courage. Managers need to connect with people personally through words and example.
Effective managers accept mistakes, too, but they use them as tools for positive change. Jack Welch, the best manager in modern history, wrote in The Wall Street Journal not long after Hurricane Katrina that crises almost always give way to something better, revealing where systems are broken and forcing real solutions to happen: “Ultimately, learning is why disasters, in business and in nature, have the potential to make the organizations that survive them so much stronger in the long run.”
Being an extraordinary leader is about more than just keeping your team energized and in the game. You've got to be willing to beat a path into unfamiliar territory and harness opportunities to change the game itself.
In the last couple of years, corporations have started to engage in social networking, wrestling with whether (and how) to shed traditional marketing mores and established hierarchies in favor this fast-evolving, not-always-containable technology—and how to best employ it for themselves and their clients. Taking risks to embrace innovation and mobilize the knowledge base of “digital natives” is a great way to lead the charge. Times are changing, and by cowering or refusing to make bold moves, businesses will get nowhere fast.
Anthony Viceroy is CFO of Porter Novelli