Leadership in Tough Times

By Peter Urs Bender

The economy is slowing. All you hear are the cries of economists, businessmen, and governments moaning that things aren't good, and aren't going to get better anytime soon. In spite of, or perhaps because of that, I have had a greater request for management consulting jobs in the last few months than ever before.

If you're "leading from within" the first thing you should ask yourself is: "What is a Tough Time?" The answer is that's it's a perception. What you see is what you get…and all the predictions and projections of the experts often become self-fulfilling prophecies because they are creating the "perception" that things are "tough". But are they really that bad?

If the economy is bad, we say it's a recession.
If we lose our job, it's a depression.
Everything is relative yet someone, somewhere is always worse off.

Imagine, for instance, you lived thousands of years ago. You're working hard on the farm and suddenly the Mongols appear on your doorstep. They destroy your crops, abduct your women, and kill your family members. That's a Tough Time made even worse by the fact that innocents are dying in the onslaught. In some places in the world, such as the Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Europe, it's still pretty bad.

That isn't happening here in Canada, but it does seem as if we're going through Tough Times. I'm not making light of it. But realize that a Tough Time is "as we see it". We we feel is real. Welcome to reality.

In my book Leadership From Within I say there are five elements to leadership. They're important for your self-fulfillment in the best of times, but in bad times it's even more important to do a reality check. Not only be tell yourself "things could always be worse", but try to maintain a positive attitude. In the past I used to tell my consulting clients not to associate with a negative people. Today, I tell them to run away from them.

Here are the five elements you need to work on.

Know yourself
In good times you do what helps you develop your potential-in Tough Times we have to do what helps to pay the bills. You might need to work overtime without charging your company for it to keep your job. You might take on extra projects at home that formerly you did on company time. You might have to help your company reduce expenses (fly economy, not business class; schedule a few visits together; cut down on business lunches), and you might have to reduce personal expenses at home. You will do whatever you must to keep afloat.

Have a vision
In Tough Times it's of crucial importance to have a positive vision of what will happen later. It's important in good times, too, but when the going gets rough it's imperative to look beyond the immediate mess. Remember, Tough Times won't last. Things always change. Those who most successfully rise above their current difficulties are those who can see things positively, even in a negative time. Here is where religious believers can have an advantage over non-believers. They see their leaders suffering but not breaking. They are inspired by forward-looking visions. Studies also show that people who keep a positive attitude also tend to have less mental and emotional problems, less physical sickness, and better all-round health.

Take Risks
In good times you can take risks fairly easily, knowing you mostly always have a fallback position. In Tough Times, don't take large financial risks if you can't afford them. The risks you take should be those which will position you to capitalize on them when times get better. If you're in the management planning area, don't hesitate to take on extra work in the execution of tasks. If you are in inside sales, put on a hat and knock on doors for your company in new markets. Look for additional things you can do to benefit your company. When things improve, your efforts will be remembered (we hope!).

Communicate
Talk nicely to yourself. Talk positively about the things you accomplish and will accomplish in the company and in your life. Don't bitch and complain about Tough Times. Tell yourself and others to enjoy what they have now…if could be worse. The economy might go down, but it's not exactly as if you're on the Titanic, though it might sometimes feel like it. If you have an option, ask yourself which you would prefer: to be where your are now, or in the greatest luxury liner ever built, in a first-class suite with all the trimmings, on the night of April 14, 1912.

Check your progress and results
In good times it's important to set benchmarks and check your results against them. In Tough Times it's even more important. Keep your personal financial books in order as much as possible. Pay your bills on time. If you can't, send regular partial payments. Look after your health. Take care of it. After all, when your body kicks out, you're done. By keeping a positive outlook you'll probably be able to keep at bay the things that can drag others down. But there are no absolute guarantees. Even if you follow all the leadership strategies I've outlined here, things still might turn out sour. Life isn't fair! That's life!

Peter Urs Bender is a well known Canadian management consultant, and author of three best-selling books: Leadership From Within, Secrets of Power Presentations, and Secrets of Power Marketing. His fourth book, Secrets of Face-to-Face Communication, is now in bookstores. He can be reached at 416-491-6690, or www.PeterUrsBender.com.