Recession-Proofing Your Leadership Skills

“Fix your eyes forward on what you can do, not back on what you cannot change.”
Tom Clancy, author

We’ve got a recession on our hands. Everybody knows that.

But what are you doing to recession-proof your leadership skills during these challenging times? After all, these times require a different set of leadership skills than those you used during the boom times.

I recommend five strategies. They aren’t necessarily difficult, but if you overlook them, you’re going to have more than your share of problems.

=> 1. Be visible and accessible.

As Kevin Berchelmann, known as a “human capital expert,” says, “This is not the time to hide out in your office, pining away the days or lamenting for better times.” Get out there amongst your people and your customers. And if you ever got away from “management by walking around,” get back to it.

What we need today are some real warrior generals. Or “Brigadier Generals.” You see … Brigadier Generals lead a brigade of troops from the front of the brigade. They’re not back in some remote headquarters location, sitting in air conditioned comfort, while their soldiers go to battle. No, they are visible, and literally out front … where you need to be.

=> 2. Be 100% trustworthy.

If employees ever needed someone to trust … someone to lean on … it’s now. And the simplest way to ensure your leadership trustworthiness is to do three things.

First, be real. Be yourself. You can’t expect people to trust you if you try to be anything other than yourself. Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, learned that. He said, “My father wrote in my sixth grade yearbook … quoting Hamlet: ‘To thine own self be true.’ I was 12 years old, but it had a powerful impression on me then, and I’ve often thought of it since.”

Second, say what you mean and mean what you say. If you do anything else, if you tell the slightest white lie, your leadership is doomed. President Thomas Jefferson talked about that. He said, “He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and a third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the worlds believing him.”

Third, do what you say you’re going to do. After all, your people are watching you, and they notice, and they remember very gap between your walk and your talk. And there’s no need to learn this lesson the hard way. As Thomas Murphy, the CEO of Capital Cities/ABC notes, “Doing the wrong thing is not worth the loss of one good night’s sleep.”

=> 3. Reinforce purpose.

When people are worried about their jobs and their futures, when a company’s very existence is in question, it’s easy to forget why you all came together in the first place.

So you’ve got to be a leader of character who remembers and follows his/her purpose. It serves as a critical example for your people.

That’s what actor Alan Alda learned to do. In his book, “Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself,” Alda describes a point in his acting career when he realized that his time on stage was not about him. Rather it was about the service he was offering to the audience.

When he realized that the patrons had come and paid to see the plays and experience the arts, he realized that he had a responsibility to deliver a high quality performance. He said it was a “paradigm shift” to a higher calling and purpose.

I thought to myself, “How cool is that? No wonder he’s a great actor.” And then I got a note from Carmen Olivieri after he and his wife attended my “Journey to The Extraordinary” program. He’s the CEO of MC & R Pools and Spas. He wrote, “In the same way as Alan Alda, you and your organization deliver more than the audience expects. To us it felt like your commitment to your audience was deep, sincere, and heartfelt … and not just a means for you to earn a living.”

Super cool. When people see you living and working with a sense of purpose, it helps bring out the best in others … even in the worst of times.

=> 4. Empathize with your people.

Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. These are uncertain, uncomfortable times for them. And so you may see more than the normal amount of stress in your people.

Are you empathizing with them? Do they see your care and feel your heart? Or do they see you as more concerned with your own future and your own career? If you do the former, you’ll recession-proof your leadership skills. If you do the latter, you’ll depress their energy and motivation.

John Bentley had to learn this the hard way. He’s one of my customers from the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. He told me, “Back in 1992, the Air Force decided to reduce the number of military people and offered $25,000 to anyone who would leave early. I decided to take the buyout because the Air Force … in my mind … wasn’t promoting me fast enough.”

“A few days after signing the paper work and taking the buyout, Chief Master Sergeant White approached me and said, John, I was going to move you into a supervisory position in a couple of months and share a life lesson with you. But since you’re leaving the Air Force, it is even more important I share it with you now.”

White shook a Coke can, handed it to John, and said, “Open it.” Bentley said, “Chief, I ain’t going to open that.”

White asked, “Why not?” To which Bentley replied, “Because it will spew all over me.”

It was at that point that Chief White … who was 6 foot 4 inches tall … wide at the shoulders and narrow at the waist … got down to Bentley’s level, put his hands on Bentley’s shoulders, and in a soft voice said, “That is exactly what you do when things don’t go your way. You spew all over yourself and other people.”

White continued by saying, “John, you have all the talent in the world. But if you don’t learn to influence yourself and others in a positive way, you’ll never be a success as a leader.”

It was a huge wake-up call for Bentley. He learned about the importance of empathizing with others and the power of positive influence.

Fortunately for Bentley … and later the people he led … the Air Force gave him a second chance. They notified him that he could withdraw his resignation and be promoted. And over the next year, Chief White taught him how to let go of his perfectionistic expectations and how to trust and lead others.

It worked. Bentley went on to serve and lead, retiring from the Air Force in March of 2003 after 21 years of service.

What about you? Are you empathizing with your people during these challenging times? You may need to give them a break. You may need to remember that you’re not always easy to live and work with yourself.

=> 5. Demonstrate a positive belief in the future.

That means … as a leader … you can’t go around complaining, commiserating, or whining. Especially not now. Your staff doesn’t need to know that you feel as out of control as they do. It doesn’t help them or you … to believe that things are hurtling out of everyone’s control.

As Kevin Berchelmann notes, “It’s far better to convince them that hard work, strong performance, and effective leadership will prevail. Because, of course, it will. You must know – and believe – that. Or bail out.”

Quite simply, you either believe your organization is going to die or going to get better. Either way, you have to make a call and act accordingly.

If you decide to stay, NO WHINING! You can’t be an effective leader and a whiner at the same time. Take on the attitude of Bruce Lee, the martial artist and actor who said, “Defeat is a state of mind. No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as reality. To me, defeat in anything is merely temporary, and it’s punishment is but an urge for me to greater effort to achieve my goal. Defeat simply tells me that something is wrong in my doing; it is a path leading to success and truth.”

Action:  How would your coworkers describe you? How would the people you lead characterize you during these tough times?

Would they say…
*that you’re visible and accessible,
*that you’re 100% trustworthy,
*that reinforce their sense of purpose,
*that you empathize with them, and
*that you demonstrate a positive belief in the future?