In the midst of a fast-paced business world, every day perhaps is a crisis, calling upon the leader to uncover new opportunities to survive and thrive. Paradoxical as it may seem, in times of crisis, for those organisations that respond strategically and decisively with an unrelenting execution focus, there are many opportunities.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said Martin Luther King, an invaluable reflection on the demands of a leader. The economic scenario today presents a unique set of business challenges, which are plaguing organisations the world over — rising cost of capital, falling consumer confidence, inflationary concerns, pressure on margins, decreased equity valuations, uncertain environment and unexpected developments. The need for action is imminent and compelling in a world where volatility and uncertainty impact organisations in unanticipated ways, and the leader needs to be vigilant, and make amends post-haste.

It is important to preserve the fabric of the organisation with the message that we are all in it together and that the leadership has a clear plan. This creates ownership and cascades the ability to retain the spirit. A syndrome that afflicts many leaders is what Ron Westrum, refers to as the “fallacy of centrality” — when the leader believes he knows it all, while actually being oblivious to key facts — ‘if I am in the middle, I am all too aware of what’s going on’ and the resultant corollary that ‘if I don’t know it, it’s not happening!’ How you rally the team when the chips are down and your ability to create positive expectations is the real litmus test of a leader.

One for all, all for one

When in the midst of adversity, businesses are beset with the need to enhance operational efficiency, enable cost optimisation and even evaluate competing strategic choices. Organisations that demonstrate strong leadership respond strategically and decisively with an unrelenting execution anchored around a clear people focus. “Often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key,” sang The Eagles in Already Gone. Enabling a turnaround starts with the core belief that even the most difficult circumstances can be managed when you ensure shared vision and trust across the organisation with a deep sensitivity to people issues.

Employees are the vital bridge between leadership strategy and action. The leaders at the helm cannot and need not try to steer the ship alone. Wars are never fought and won by generals alone; on the ground, the troops are paramount. Employees are more mature than most believe. When taken into confidence, teams could become a veritable force. Retention needs immediate attention to mitigate imminent departure of key performers. Participation of internal customers in decision-making leads to empowerment, and ensures a sense of predictability where they understand the next steps of action, timelines, and the role expected of them.

Communication has to be clear, concrete and honest, helping employees understand the changes and reducing ambiguity, stress and trauma. An overall commitment to changing the currently held beliefs into a positive and productive mindset is essential.

(The author is Partner and Global Leader, People and Organisation, Ernst & Young.)

(This article was published on August 30, 2012)
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