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Leadership in Challenging Times

A lot of businesses are having a difficult year—and it has raised this question to the top of my list: What does leadership look like in challenging times? What does a servant leader do when facing trials at work?

Here are some thoughts and questions to help you when you face the inevitable challenge that comes with the mantle of leadership.

Reflect, Listen, & Learn

When business circumstances change, our first emotions are often anxious and overwhelmed. Our brains rush to urgent, panicky ideas. Fear rises up. And we begin reacting to the situation.

Here’s a better idea. Stop what you are doing. Go on a hike. Sit by a waterfall. And reflect on the situation.

This is a contrarian thought. But let’s face it: in challenging times, everything becomes urgent, everything is a problem, and everything needs a response. What if you stopped what you were doing, found a place to reflect on the situation, and asked yourself these questions:

  • What are we trying to do? What are the goals? What is our purpose?
  • What principles do we want to guide our response to the circumstances?
  • What information and insight do we have to help us make decisions?

Clear your head. Get back to the big picture. Open up your mind to learn from the situation—before you act.

Bring Courage and Humility

Here’s why we are afraid to stop acting and start thinking through the challenge.

  • We may have to face the fact that we, the leader, are part of the problem.
  • We may have to make a bold change in direction that will be hard and risky.
  • We may have to admit we have made mistakes.

If you are in a challenging situation, you will need to find your courage and humility.  The courage to say to your team or organization, “We have a serious problem.” The humility to say, “I have been part of the problem.” The courage to tell them, “We need to change directions.”  The humility to say, “This will be risky, but we have to try.”

In tough times, the worst thing you can do is to hide behind busyness and chaos – and do nothing brave or humble.

Know Your Role

I believe the team is looking for the leader to do three very important things:

  • Vision – tell the team where we are going and why
  • Talent – assemble the right people and the right resources for the journey
  • Culture – create the right environment for the team to win

The first part of leadership is telling the team where we are going and why.  The vision needs to be a challenging, brave place.  It needs to be plausible, but a stretch to get there.  The team needs a focused roadmap with the vital few actions that will lead to success.

Once you have your vision, you resource the plan with the best talent in every position and the money to make it happen.  This also takes courage.  The courage to think about what capabilities you need to get the job done—and determine if you have them on the team.  The courage to address the talent gaps and move the money to the strategies that will drive results.  The courage to say no to everything else that is nice to do, but unlikely to change the trajectory of the business.

But don’t stop there—think about the culture of the organization.  Review the principles and values of the organization and show the team how they are relevant to the current situation.  If you value personal responsibility, teach your team what it means to own their piece of the puzzle and perform their personal best for the team. If you value individuals, take the time to sit down with them one-on-one and share your plan and perspective, so that they can understand where they fit.  Create a place where people can understand the vision and values and contribute their best selves.


I am not a cheerleader. I was always too tall for the gymnastics. I don’t have any pompoms and I don’t like to scream in front of other people.

But as a leader, I must find my personal way to inspire the people that look to me for leadership. For me, inspiration is personal. I want to help you understand the goals and why they are exciting for the organization. I want to help individuals apply their personal strengths to the business in a way that grows and develops their capability. I want to help people do better work than they ever imagined was possible. Most of the inspiring I do is in small groups or one-on-one conversations.

Of course, I often must speak in front of the full organization to inspire the company to act on our plan. But even then, my approach is personal—sharing information, sharing personal stories, and being accessible to questions.  I want to be vulnerable and transparent to the realities we face. I’ve come to believe people follow people they know—and who tell them the truth.

Too often we assume we must cheer, when what people really need is to be personally connected to the leader.

See It Through

Last but not least, in challenging times, it is the leader’s job to help the organization see the plan through to success.  You help the team push through the obstacles, overcome their fears, and adjust to new information. You demonstrate tenacity—the determination to get to success—the persistence to push through the difficulties—the resolve to get to the finish line. You stay with the team until they successfully reach the destination.

These are the things your team needs from you in challenging times.

Where do you need to make adjustments to bring them to superior performance?

Serving performs—and it starts with you.

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