Most organizations have not prepared themselves for a long term siege. Not only is it important to identify and intervene in the outcomes of long term stress at the top, but it is also imperative to think in terms of grooming the organization for future crises through leadership preparedness, organizational health focus, culture interventions, and succession strategies that account for leading through tough times.
In any organization under long term stress, there will be an impact on Leadership! Sometimes the effect is blatant and at other times, subtle. Regardless, over time your leadership will not be operating at optimal performance unless you address the effects of the stress.
Formerly cohesive groups will very likely develop trust issues. Why? Because when the answers are not clear and apparent, style differences will become more obvious. People who normally work well together may become contentious and argumentative. Those who are decisive, risk takers, gratified by quick response and action will become impatient with the more thoughtful, deliberating approach to issues. Those slower to act will become uneasy with the perceived "knee jerk" responses of their previously "brilliant" peers. Communications will become less fluid as it is "prudent" to keep things to yourself if you want to sustain freedom of movement.
Turf wars become even more important, and sometimes deadly. Leaders who should be banding to fight the enemy are often desperately fighting for themselves. "Looking good", risk avoidance, not making mistakes, not attracting negative attention are all behaviors that are evident in the best of times. In bad times, they tend to thrive. Look around. How long can your leaders "hold their breath?"
It is important to observe the impact of stress on an organization over time. Early in the dance, people may fundamentally still be operating from a strong code of behavior which contributes to the positive direction of the organization.
Over time, people wear down and allow their worry about the future to have more play with their emotions. Watching for the symptoms and intervening to remind people of who they are is an important step which should be repeated often over a long crisis.
Preparing for Tough Times
Even the very best athletes continuously practice. They attempt to prepare for all contingencies. They understand that being and staying at the top of their game takes discipline and diligence. They never assume that they can take on a tough opponent with out preparation.
Military officers constantly play war games to test their proficiencies during "combat" situations.
What of our corporate leaders? It is equally important that they be prepared for tough times. They have highly evolved skill sets and a good deal of experience, but do they have the mental and emotional preparation to stay cool headed, even tempered, and focused during the challenges that go on for months and even years? This question is particularly valid in industries that have thrived for long periods of time. Suddenly they find themselves being controlled by a volatile economic situation which makes planning and forecasting impossible.
Optimizing the performance of the whole and the individual parts takes practice and preparation. Knowing what to focus on in tough times can be integral to surviving and thriving in the long term.
The Essence of the Preparation
Teaching leaders how to think and respond to long term pressure is similar to the background work done by a student of the Martial Arts. There is an entire philosophy behind the response to threats that must be carefully taught and practiced before the "contest" begins.
The answers will not be found in the typical places. The long term stress of our economy is pushing us in a new direction for answers.
Just as the martial arts student learns to manage the energy of the engagement, our leaders must learn to observe the energy of their organizations and their interactions. They must learn to "feel" the results of their communications. They must know whether their subordinates are aligned or fragmented. They must become conscious of all of their relationships, and the quality of the interactions throughout their ecosystem. They must understand how to move above the battle and see things from a perspective that allows them to see not only the current events, but the patterns that indicate the direction things are going.
In other words, our leaders must develop a new set of sensory skills to go along with the technical and tactical skills they are, and have been, learning. They must learn how to consciously tap into their intuitive knowledge and to integrate that "knowing" with the data that is abundant in any leader's life.
Suppose the leader discounts this advice as frivolous or unnecessary. Perhaps the martial arts experience is a good indicator of what is likely to happen. If a contestant allows himself to get lost in anger, distracted by fear, or arrogant in his assumptions about his own skills, try to imagine the impact on the very complicated dance he is engaged in. The same is true for the leaders of our organizations, communities and countries. If the opponents have evolved their skills and awareness to a higher level, the leader who has not will, quite simply, lose.
If a leader sees the value in pursuing an additional set of skills beyond what is normally taught or available through our typical Leadership development approach, how should he or she proceed?
First, he or she will need to recognize that this knowledge is not going to be acquired through any traditional Leadership development approach. That's the bad news.
The good news is that the information is much more readily available than one might think. It is as simple, and complex, as observing events in a different and more comprehensive way.
If you are a golfer, for example, pay attention to the things you have learned about golf. The serious golfer is aware of the nuances of whether the course leans to the left or the right, the subtle influence of the breeze, the importance of the basics regarding stance and line of sight, etc. . The serious leader must be equally tuned to the nuances of people's behaviors, tone of voice, environmental influences, etc.
The fun part of this knowledge acquisition is that as you observe your golf game and pay attention to the fine distinctions of what is occurring, you can apply that understanding to your leadership. If you are overplaying the ball, apathetic in your approach, or even erratic and inconsistent, you will find the same inconsistencies in your leadership style.
It doesn't need to be golf. It can be anything that you desire to master. To be a Master of any skill set, one must look beyond the obvious, to those degrees of understanding that include following the energy and the feelings. Mastery always goes beyond technical knowledge, and Leadership is no exception!
Can this awareness be taught? Absolutely. Do most leaders see the need to learn this additional skill set on top of what they are already learning? Rarely!
Will we survive this economic crisis if our leaders do not learn these additional skills? This time, probably. Unfortunately, we will most likely recreate our crisis in an even more disastrous form because our leaders will continue to make the mistakes that led us to our current status! Heavy reliance on algorithms that appear to validate a direction mathematically has proven to be a poor choice over and over again. Our cultural need for "proof" leads us to an over dependence on "justification" and a simultaneous diminishing ability to utilize and trust our common sense. It might be important to remind ourselves that the financial meltdown we are experiencing was created by the use of sophisticated models for loan portfolios that somehow did not measure up.