High-Stakes Leadership

Recent events (the coronavirus pandemic, the lockdown of global economies and civil unrest) have intensified the spotlight on leadership in situations of danger and high stakes. These circumstances have clearly highlighted the need for good data, objective analysis of facts, the courage to make decisions in the face of pressure and incomplete information (and sometimes to change course in light of new information) and the ability to communicate complex ideas in an understandable and persuasive manner.

People in positions of public leadership (including business executives) have a hard time getting, analyzing and using good information. And being in a visible position of leadership, especially in a large organization, is fraught with new obstacles and dangers related to the social media landscape.

Given that these are unusual and unsettled times characterized by mistrust of leadership and institutions (verified by Gallup and others) it's imperative that leaders in the public eye, and leaders in general, behave in a way that builds credibility and trust. Yes, this is idealistic, and yes, many of our systems seem to be broken. But with luck, reason and hard work we can fix them, or at least get them back into effective working order. Here are some ideas that might help us move in a more positive direction.

You need good data and sound analysis. In all situations, but especially in trying times, leaders should first off try to get good data. Although we have more information at our fingertips than at any time in history, there is also much more noise and spin in the system. In any leadership role, especially in a high-stakes situation, remind yourself that everyone is likely to be working an angle. Assume that everyone will be pushing an agenda and trying to influence your decisions. Though it may not be an agenda from bad intentions, people often have a vested interest in certain outcomes which is likely exacerbated during tough times. So, look at your data with a rigorous and skeptical eye. Seek confirmation from as wide a variety of sources and viewpoints as possible. Always consider the possibility that you may be wrong.  And be sure you understand basic statistics and probability.

You need the courage to make decisions with incomplete data. There will always be people who will question the leader's decision and who will actively or passively resist progress if they don't agree. In reality, the true effectiveness and consequences of many high-stakes decisions may never fully be known. Many situations are just too complex. What are the consequences of shutting down an economy in a pandemic versus keeping a country open? In a perfect world, we would be able to quantify the effects of both courses of action. However, there is likely to be little agreement on the most probable number of deaths due to the disease versus those due to a crashed economy. In these circumstances, leaders need objective sources of data and analysis. But they also need the judgment and courage to make some decisions that will not be easy or popular. Not many people are wired to do that. In the public arena, there is tremendous pressure from all sides. In battle, military leaders are sometimes confronted with situations that will cost lives no matter what the decision. One can only hope to minimize the loss. The best way to do that is to have accurate data, rational analyses and the most competent and objective advisors.

Show a positive vision and the way to achieve it. Acknowledge that people are facing major problems and difficulties, paint a positive vision and communicate a path out of the trouble. Clarify but don't simplify. Admit it when you don't have the information. Don't cover up, prevaricate or make up an answer to look good. People are motivated by a fear of loss. They need to know the leader will help them avoid it. They need to see that the leader is working hard to make things better and giving them the chance to be successful.

Make sure everyone understands the mission. In tough times, unity of effort is more effective than unity of command. Make the "North Star" explicit. A good example of this is the approach attributed to General Thad Allen, leader of the Hurricane Katrina recovery task force. In the early chaos, he was reported to have climbed on a table in the command tent to address the troops trying to get ready to deal with the devastation. His message was: "Treat everyone you meet who has been affected as if they are a member of your family. If you do that, two things will happen. First, if you make a mistake, you will err on the side of doing too much. Second, if somebody has a problem with what you've done, it will not be with you. It will be with me."

Keep the faith that things will get better. Human history is characterized by conflict and struggle but also by progress and problem solving. Despite the constant drumbeat of negativity, most objective data and trendlines show that we are in better shape now than at any time in history. Remember that human ingenuity is not usually considered by models of scarcity, gloom and doom. We encounter tough times, we adjust, we solve problems and we create a better life. That's our nature. None of us are perfect as individuals and none of our organizations are perfect. However, the steady overall trend has been in the positive direction since we first began to record history.

A Good Leader Helps People Overcome Adversity

Growth through pain is a cliché, but it's also true. A tough fact of life is that that we don't learn much about our­selves or our character in good times. We can't fully dis­cover our strengths and shortcomings without being tested by adversity. How we deal with it is central to who we are "“ and how credible we can be in leadership roles. In bad times, all eyes are on the leader. The way you behave has a tremendous impact on your people. The best thing the captain can do in stormy seas is keep the tiller steady "“ unless, of course, the ship is headed towards the rocks.

When people are under prolonged periods of stress and strain, predictable and bad things happen. They can become increasingly wary and tend to interpret each new sign as an indication of more bad things to come. Negative emotions run high and people are more likely to bark at each other and openly show frustration. They become skeptical of the new and the different, and are prone to reject it out of hand. As the stress continues, fatigue sets in and they become even more pessimistic about the future. Relationships suffer as the focus be­comes one of staying afloat as a business. Steadiness and insightful coaching are crucial to survival and success in tough times. A stressful environment increases the leader's potential impact. People look to leaders more in hard times, which is partly a product of the ambiguity that adversity creates.

Focusing on the Right Things

A critical coaching challenge in uncertain times is to keep people focused on things that are under their con­trol. You might not be able to affect what happens in the market, but you certainly can reach out to your cus­tom­ers and provide great service. This sense of control helps people manage their stress and allows them to experi­ence small wins that have a buffering effect. It is critical that the leader or coach provide a broader vision of the future, and a sense of direction and purpose. By linking today's actions to a better future, people gain a sense of perspective. By pointing out to an employee how their individual job links to a broader corporate strategy, you give that person a greater sense of purpose and utility. And that provides significant relief from the debilitating effects of stress.

On the people side of the equation, the key respon­sibility of a leader or coach is communication. Regular, honest, candid, and consistent communication is key. You must be seen as a reliable source of information, even if it means admitting you don't know. Equally im­portant is listening. By understanding the concerns of their people, leaders can more readily address them and share with them the information and insights that reduce mis­understandings and fight negative rumors. In tough times, it is critically important to create oppor­tunities for positive emotion. While a sense of humor helps, it is also important to celebrate wins, find ways to have fun, and to thank people. Emphasizing strengths, wins, and good news helps redirect attention and energy.

A cornerstone of great leadership is taking care of the troops. Listening and empathy are important, of course, but you also need to be attuned to signs of burnout. Because much is expected of people in a tough economy, they need to find ways to recharge their bat­teries. Framing challenges people face as developmental opportunities can often help redefine their emotional experience. While few people would wish to go through boot camp again, most recognize the benefit of that challenge. Seeing current circumstances as being tested under fire makes us more resilient. Remember the words of Winston Churchill: "If you're going through hell, keep going."

Naturally, managing the task and managing your people are essential to success in any circumstances; but in tough times, the self-management dimension is critical. You're in the spotlight even more now. You set the tone. If you are positive, confident, and optimistic, your people are likely to behave in the same way. If you display focus and determination, they are likely to follow suit. In stressful circumstances, you need to manage your behavior to bring about greater optimism and more effective action from your people, and help them manage their own attitudes and behaviors towards appropriate outcomes.

It's natural for people to feel powerless and victim­ized in tough times, so it is important for leaders to help their people shift from the mindset of the passive victim observing things from the sidelines to that of the athlete playing the game. You must keep them focused on the fact that there are always choices available, and that, although they may not be able to control the final score, they do have control over how they play the game. If we consistently play with integrity, stamina, optimism, and intensity, we usually surprise ourselves. Even if we lose, we can be proud of our performance. Remember, just as panic and despair are infectious, so are energy and enthusiasm. As you look around your organization, remember the words of Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

One way to keep people focused on positive action is not to slip into the trap of automatic sympathy. While it makes a person in victim mode feel good to hear such things as, "That's terrible, you must feel awful, they should fix it, poor baby," and other messages of consolation, those are precisely the wrong messages. They imply that the power is out there, with those bad people who are doing you wrong, with that evil competitor or that rotten economy.

A more effective way to get and keep the right focus is with statements such as, "Yes, that's tough "“ what are you going to do about it?" or, "I wish it was different, but it's not "“ what did you learn from it?" and "I understand you're angry "“ so how will you avoid this in the future?" These responses imply that the power remains with the individual and that some positive outcome can arise from a tough situation when you employ the right strategies. A key to great leadership in tough times is to help people see reality, and to help them find appropriate ways to deal with it. Keep in mind the words of Carl Rogers: "The facts are always friendly."

Leaders often need to help their players reframe their current situations, and see things in a different light. This is important: the conditions that conspire to present you with your current set of choices are not always under your control, but the way you respond to them is. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning describes the experiences that helped him develop these insights, and illustrates this concept quite effectively. You can't imagine much worse circumstances than Auschwitz, where the Nazis had the power over everything in your life, including whether or not you get to keep it. Some people, however, including Frankl, were able to survive their ordeals in the death camps.

Being a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, Frankl was intrigued by the puzzle of what makes some people re­silient and what causes others in similar life-threatening circumstances to succumb. His observation was that, although people in the camps were deprived of choice in all aspects of their lives, those who retained the human dignity of choosing how to respond were more likely to survive. Those who gave up and acted as if they had no control, no choices, were more likely to die. This was also illustrated in studies of learned helplessness conducted by Martin Seligman, one of the primary developers of the relatively new field of Positive Psychology. He demonstrated that dogs that were subject to shocks over which they had no control eventually gave up and stopped trying to escape. Even when the doors to their cages were left open, they would lie down and passively accept the shock rather than try to get out. They could have escaped the shock simply by walking through the open door, but their previous training had not provided them that frame of reference.

Hopefully, most of us will never have to endure traumatic experiences such as those described above; but we still whine and complain. It's our nature. Still, we can transcend our nature at times by shifting our frame of reference, realizing that we in fact do have more control than we think, and changing the way we act. Similarly, when we change how we think (often leading to the insight that we in fact do have options), we're preparing to change how we respond and behave. The clear lesson of these re­sults and observations is this: how we choose to respond to a situation allows us to transcend even the worst of circumstances.

The right changes in behavior enable us to make things better. We can choose to see things differently as we become more aware of alternatives and we can consequently choose to act differently as we develop the courage to do so.

Thought Questions for Bad Times

How do you begin? If you're in a bad situation, start with a question: "What am I going to do to make things bet­ter?" This implies analyzing your circumstances with an eye towards seeing what can be improved. As you do this, you may begin to see alternatives you might not have considered. This is when you can see opportunities to act differently. You might not have caused your situation, but you always have the choice about how to respond to it. You have more control than you realize. It sounds simplistic, but sometimes the simple solutions are the best. To help your people shift their thinking from being the victim to becoming an active participant, try these questions:

What will you do to make your life better?

When will you do it?

How will you measure your success?

How long before you know whether it's working?

What will you do if it's not working?

Key Concepts

When people are under stress, they look to leaders for information, direction, and support. In dangerous and high-stakes situations, leaders need accurate data and analysis. They also need to communicate a clear vision of success and a path out of the difficulties. If you can help people realize they have more control than they realize, they will be more effective. Reframing their current nega­tive situation to help them focus on the things that are under their control, and showing them they can find things they can do, will help them get through.