Leadership: Triumph in Adversity

· Human Resources, Leadership, Reflections

Leadership: Triumph in Adversity

NS Rajan

Leading a team is difficult indeed, and leading them in a crisis is exponentially more difficult. How you rally the team when the chips are down and your ability to create positive expectations is the real litmus test of a leader. “Sweet are the uses of adversity”, observed Shakespeare, in his play ‘As You Like It’. Paradoxical as it may seem, opportunities abound in times of adversity for organisations that demonstrate strong leadership, respond strategically and decisively with an unrelenting execution anchored around a clear people-focus. Passion for growth, particularly in difficult times, is often a devil that beguiles leaders, who may end up losing their souls. Passion for growth, without reason and compassion, is the real devil.

When enterprises traverse difficult times, companies, once wealth creators, may unwittingly be transformed into wealth destroyers, especially when they fail to value their most important asset: people. . “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”, noted Martin Luther King, an invaluable reflection on the demands of a leader. Turning the pressure on people relentlessly, especially when leadership fails to address debilitating market conditions and eroding bottom line, may only end up eroding true value.

The leadership needs to be vigilant, and make amends post-haste. “Often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key”, sang The Eagles in “Already Gone”. The leaders at the helm cannot and need not try to steer the ship all alone. Wars are never fought and won by generals alone; on the ground, the troops are paramount. Enabling a turnaround starts with the core belief that even the most difficult circumstances can be managed when you ensure  shared vision and trust across the organisation with a deep sensitivity to people issues. Employees are more mature than most believe; when taken into confidence, teams could become a veritable force.

A syndrome that afflicts many leaders is what researcher Ron Westrum refers to  as the “fallacy of centrality” — when the leader believes he knows it all, while actually being oblivious to key facts: ‘if I am in the middle, I am all too aware of what’s going on’ and the resultant corollary that ‘if I don’t know it, it’s not happening!’ This compounds the situation at hand; making those you really need desert the ship when you most need them. What good strategy may resolve cannot be substituted by making employees the scapegoats.  It is important to preserve the fabric of the organisation with the message that we are all in it together; that we can survive the difficult times; and, more importantly, that the leadership has a clear plan. This creates ownership and cascades the ability to retain the spirit.

Urgent remedial attention is imperative on many dimensions. The employees of every organization are the vital bridge between leadership strategy and action. Retention needs immediate attention to reverse and mitigate imminent departure of key performers. Communication has to be clear, concrete and honest, helping employees understand the changes and reducing ambiguity, stress and trauma. Participation of internal customers in decision making leads to empowerment, and ensures a sense of predictability where they understand the next steps of action, timelines, and the role expected of them.

An overall commitment to changing the currently held beliefs into a positive and productive mindset, complemented by employee commitment, is essential. Performance orientation with objective goal setting and fair evaluation that facilitate fulfillment of collective milestones need focus. Innovation and creativity have to be encouraged where tension is redirected and used as a creative fuel for solution-based thinking. Fresh ideas, stretched minds and energetic interactions in a revitalised environ can lead to higher engagement, morale and cohesive winning teams.

“Leaders are dealers in hope,” observed Napoleon, an apt touchstone that must guide actions in difficult times. There is opportunity in adversity and that each one of us individually and collectively has the power to shape our destiny. Rising up to challenges can help discover hidden abilities, and inoculate leaders against future travails. Focusing on preserving the bottomline may serve an immediate need; yet long-term growth is a function of managing the topline that ensures good leadership, right strategy, and seamless alignment of people, processes and systems. In the words of Tennyson from ‘Ulysses’, the role of leadership in such times calls for “one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

(Colours of Hope: Amidst the heavy clouds above the sea green waters on the coast of Denpasar in Bali, I spotted this rainbow like glow crowning  the grey clouds, reminiscent of the sliver lining of hope which awaits us, even when life gets dreary and difficult )

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