The past months have been a veritable roller coaster for the financial markets and, on an accelerating basis, the "real" economy. We hear daily reports of organizations facing serious challenges - challenges that need to be met by effective leadership throughout the organization.
In discussions with organizations from Asia, North America and Europe over the past few weeks, it is clear that the leadership challenges have been strongly - and in many cases - very personally felt.
In good times and in bad - but especially in bad times - the people in our teams and organizations want to feel that someone is in charge and can provide some stability by having a plan. We all want to be led.
So, what is it that we seek from our leaders and what do leaders need to focus on while we are experiencing the "downside" of risk in our economy?
We ask our leaders to set a vision, share the vision and mobilize us and our teammates to achieve it. We look to our leaders to help identify opportunities for our organization and to identify, reinforce and police the values that define us as an institution. And we ask them to manage emotions, deal with the operational and human resources needs and ensure that our vision, institutional values and opportunities are aligned with the changing world environment.
Oh, and last but not least, we expect our leaders to help us achieve "success," however that is defined.
Well, if you aren't exhausted by that inventory, we can now think about how all of these leadership requirements may be affected by the turbulence we are now experiencing.
Given the brutal shifts that we are experiencing, leaders really are required to assess whether the organizational vision needs to be shifted, or even makes sense. As one leader I spoke with recently put it: "The visions we had look like delusional fantasies in the face of the current tsunami."
It has been shown in past recessions that a good vision can help an organization through the doom and gloom, as it sees past it. So, if the vision needs adjustment, adjust and communicate it. If it is still good, keep reinforcing it.
People do forget their direction in a boat rocked by waves.
Context and Fit
All of the dislocation we are experiencing right now is leading many organizations, and operations within them, to wonder: "How are we still relevant?"
People want to know they are doing the right things and that their teams are helping to create solutions. Leaders need to ensure that the vision and pursuits of their teams still fit and that there is good dialogue within the team to ensure that people understand this.
Teams want their leaders to help identify opportunities and assess which opportunities are best suited to achieving the vision. The existence of clear opportunities is a hugely mobilizing force for organizations, especially in the face of decline all around. Leadership needs to move beyond the message of survival and employment retention: What gives people hope is the fact that opportunity is out there.
Rahm Emanuel, recently appointed by U.S. president-elect Barack Obama to be White House chief of staff, said: "You don't ever want to let a crisis go to waste: It's an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid."
We can accomplish things now that would have been truly inconceivable a year ago in terms of partnerships, alliances, value-chain development and new product and services. In other words - opportunity.
Always remember that the values that are critical to who we are as institutions are often not only most tested but most reinforced by what we do in a crisis. We are often tempted by the obvious expediency of the moment to do things that seem like correct management actions but that may cripple us as institutions when we survive. The leader must understand the values implied by management actions.
Expediency can be tempting but costly. If leaders determine that a change in values is necessary and appropriate - and this can occur, especially with seismic shifts all around - strong dialogue and the building and communication of a new consensus is required.
Two institutional values present in all successful organizations - honesty and trust - need to be maintained and reinforced in periods of turbulence, even if the turbulence is only largely external for the moment. Thoughtfulness, consistency and communication are required of all of us as leaders. We have to be careful to ground our thinking and ensure our veracity.
Leaders play a special role in ensuring a positive emotional environment. By now, we have all read the work by various researchers, such as that by my colleagues Peter Frost, Sandra Robinson and Sally Maitlis at UBC, on managing emotions in the workplace.
Emotions (positive and negative) and emotional disturbances do happen naturally in any workplace. And they are going to be heightened by turbulent happenings in the families and communities of our teammates, and exacerbated by changes - sometimes sudden and profound - that occur in our own organizations.
We need to be on guard for these emotional trends and their effects. This will require added vigilance on our part, more time and energy devoted to emotional issues, and the need for new processes and forums to deal with them.
Most of all, we have to realize as leaders that emotions are present, they need to be surfaced and dealt with (as appropriate) and that emotions are more about perceptions, not reality, but they are very real to the success of our teammates and our teams.
Finally, we need to ensure that all elements play together to deliver results. We need to define, measure and communicate results. Feeling like you are still making headway in that boat that is bouncing around can have at least something of a calming effect.
To those of you in leadership positions - big or small, top or middle of the organization - these are challenging times, but keep in mind that they are defining times: defining your leadership style and success. It truly is time for you to lead, follow or get out of the way.
Daniel F. Muzyka is dean of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, where he is RBC Financial Group professor of entrepreneurship.