keep calm and carry onIn good times, it is rather easy to keep employees motivated to “ride the wave.”  This goes without saying.  However, business leaders are not hired to lead only during good times.  In fact, true leadership reveals itself in times of difficulty.  Martin Luther King Jr. put this perspective into great words when he stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

As the economy in the U.S. is slowing and companies must persist in their efforts to achieve solid performance, true leadership is being put to the test.  Generally speaking, during the past several years, businesses have ridden a wave of economic success with low unemployment, stellar stock market performance and overall global economic growth.  However, as the costs of the Middle East wars accumulate, the real estate and subprime crisis continue to maintain a stranglehold on the U.S. economy, and demand for commodities outpaces supplies, countries and businesses across the globe are experiencing significant pressures.

It is at such a time that business leaders must rise to the challenge that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of and display their true measure.  As employees feel pressures due to corporate cutbacks and prospective customers postpone purchases, business leaders are faced with the tremendous challenge of maintaining high morale, not only for those that work for and around them, but within themselves just the same.  To be sure, this is by no means easy to accomplish.  In fact, many leaders must suspend personal concerns and find a way to put the concerns of their employees and the organization in the forefront.

Consider what the consequences would be if leaders found themselves unable to do this.  They would show weakness, employees and peers would see this and believe that if this person shows signs of stress, then they must know things that the others are yet aware of.  This leads to the spread of tension throughout the organization as the grapevine communication channel takes over similar to how a cancer metastasizes in a victim’s body.  This leads to less focus on customers which then spreads concerns to the marketplace, further delaying orders due to reduced overall confidence.  Well, you get the drift.  It spirals further and further, culminating in a deepening recessionary period, delaying a recovery, perhaps unnecessarily.

So, how are leaders able to prevent such a hardship?  Clearly, there are no simple answers to this question.  However, there are a couple of things that all leaders can count on in such times – lessons of history, their village, and their own ultimate power.  History tells us that tough times are most always wedged between periods of good times.  This is, in fact, what business cycles are.  Of course, there are numerous types of business cycles, each with their own duration of time.  But, while the timing may be unknown, the bottom line is that ultimately the pendulum will swing back in the other direction.  Furthermore, leaders must realize the concept of strength in numbers by counting on their villages in challenging times.  For, as Jon Katzenbach & Douglas Smith taught us, there is wisdom in teams.  Lastly, as I have discussed in past blogs, while we cannot control what happens to or around us, we all can choose how we react.  Leaders must demonstrate the fortitude that helped them reach their positions in the first place.

Nina nets it out: Don’t let difficult circumstances lead to further declines by “giving in” to them.  Be a role model of fortitude and help those around you stay focused on the clearing ahead.  Leverage history, your teams and your reactions to weather the difficulties and ultimately become stronger for doing so.