Tag Archives: effective leadership

What Effective Leaders Do in Tough Times

Each year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, where could you find Southwest Airlines’ legendary co-founder and CEO Herb Kelleher? On the tarmac, of course, helping the ground crew load and unload baggage onto planes, during what was the busiest travel day of the year.

Kelleher appreciated the importance of leaders showing solidarity with their employees, particularly during challenging times. That spirit was echoed recently, when current Southwest CEO Gary Kelly announced he was taking a 10% pay cut in light of the business challenges created by the spread of COVID-19. Other airline executives followed Kelly’s lead, but he was the first to step forward with such a gesture.

Chipping in to help staff during difficult times is a hallmark of effective leadership. It helps to humanize executives in the eyes of employees but also sends an important message that, however bad a crisis is, however big a challenge we face — we’ll overcome it by working as a team.

At Vanguard Investments, that executive “roll up your sleeves” approach is actually institutionalized via the company’s Swiss Army – a customer service “reserve team” that’s called into duty to help maintain service levels during periods of high investor call volume. The people staffing the Swiss Army aren’t regular call center representatives; they’re specially trained Vanguard executives and managers.

In September 2008, for example, as investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed and the U.S. financial industry began to implode, Vanguard CEO Bill McNabb was in the company’s Valley Forge, PA service center, fielding calls from anxious investors. Just imagine how that must have made his front-line call center representatives feel.

Working in the trenches with employees is a smart move for organizational leaders at any time, but even more so during challenging times.

Indeed, whether it’s working alongside stressed employees, or volunteering to take an executive pay cut during a financially challenging period – these types of actions send an unmistakable signal to the workforce: We’re all in this together.

In this sense, how a particular business crisis originates is almost immaterial. It could be an isolated, company-specific event, such as a product recall, or it could be a worldwide disruption caused by a global pandemic. The important thing is how leaders respond in those situations, and the signals they send to their organizations via their own personal behaviors.

See also: Coronavirus: What Should Insurers Do?  

Most businesspeople are problem solvers at heart. During crises, our natural inclination is to fix the problem, to stop the hemorrhaging, to focus on the mechanics and logistics of business recovery. While those are all very important activities, it’s critical to complement them with smaller, tone-setting tactics that, on their face, might seem less strategic and “unworthy” of an executive’s time.

Depending on what industry you’re in, that could mean helping customer service reps field incoming inquiries, or assisting warehouse personnel in boxing up orders, or chipping in to help a staff member complete an urgent task. These are all small gestures that can leave an indelible impression, especially on employees who are stressed and anxious about what the future holds.

All too often in the business world, there is a chasm between the corner office and the cubicle, between the top brass and the front line. Particularly during difficult times, it’s essential for organizational leaders to bridge that chasm, and to show the workforce what it really means to be a team player.

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com and can also be found here.

The Opposite Of Leader

Sometimes, a description of what something is not helps to also describe what it is.

This past week, we had another Lead Change Tulsa breakfast dialogue and the topic was Effectively Leading Diverse Organizations. Over 40 people, many new to Lead Change, joined us for this discussion.

Teri Aulph (@TeriAulph) generally enlists the panelists and we allow each to open the dialogue. Chery Gegelman (@GianaConsulting) moderates and facilitates with grace and involves everyone in the room to the extent they’re comfortable. Their skill at managing these events enables me to relax and think.

This day, I chose to study the people because the group was more different from me than any other breakfast discussion we’ve had. The topic of diversity almost by itself brings out a more diverse crowd. The stories and the ideas shared opened my mind and challenged my thoughts.

What makes a leader? What path were these people on to develop as leaders?

“Diversity is simply hearing every voice.” Teri Aulph

As a committed contrarian, I was reminded of ideas I’ve shared before about followers and leaders, about acting out roles vs. who we really are (character), about positional authority vs. character-based authority.

In some way, everyone in the room was a leader, and yet everyone enlisted to both share and learn. Everyone looked to grow and help others grow, stretch and help others stretch. We all instinctively knew that simply being better made our community a little better, but that wasn’t enough.

The stories of many of the panelists and of the attendees were about times when their opinions didn’t matter, and when they felt all alone or when they had been pre-judged and shut out. Then I thought about a book I’ve recently read titled Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen. One chapter in the book is about luck and the authors identify that a key distinguishing factor between the great companies and the not-so-great companies is their “return on luck or ROL.” Great organizations “got what I would describe as a better return on luck…” both good luck and bad luck.

Every person in the room came from a less-than-ideal circumstance. But every person in the room chose their response to their circumstances, their heritage, their surroundings and the behavior of others. Every person in the room chose to be a leader and lead themselves and their reaction to each situation. They could have chosen the mindset and resignation of victim, but instead, chose to take responsibility for their attitude and their actions. They led themselves into a different mindset, chose a non-standard response, and made a positive difference!

Victim is my new word to describe the opposite of leader. No one likes being a victim, but I catch myself blaming others for my circumstances and my position and at that moment I become a victim. When I remember I can always choose my attitude and my reaction, I become a leader, at least of myself.

This group of people chose not to be victims. I’m better for simply spending 90 minutes in their presence appreciating their stories and believing I have the power to choose.

Today, will you be a victim or will you take the lead? When do you catch yourself withdrawing from the role of “leader?” What would you call that if not “victim?” What other words might you use to describe the opposite of “leader?”