How To Lead During A Time Of Change?

How to lead during time of change

I have already written several blog posts based on Rita McGrath's book Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen. Because it covers a variety of topics pertaining to my research, I took notes one page after another as I kept reading. The final topic that I would like to discuss based on the book is leadership during a time of change or a time of crisis. On that point, McGrath cites research from Gail Goodman, former CEO of Constant Contact, and Thomas Kolditz, a retired brigadier general who used to teach at West Point.

Standard Skills for a Leader

First, McGrath describes the skills of an effective leader regardless of whether it is a time of change or crisis. While the heading above uses the word "standard," some of these skills are not as prevalent as we would like them to be.

Leaders always need to remember that where they focus their attention is where everyone else at the organization will focus their attention. Goodman noted, "As a leader, where you are spending your time is one of the most important investment decisions you can make."

It all starts with strategy and aligning on the following questions:

  • Who is the company serving?
  • What problems is the company solving?
  • What is the company's unique competitive advantage?

If a company is not clear about its strategy, then employees and customers will be confused about the company's "why." Leaders need to be able to tell the story about the organization and why it exists in a way that resonates with everyone. As Simon Sinek said, humans are drawn to leaders and companies that excel at expressing their beliefs. When individuals share those beliefs, they feel a sense of belonging and loyalty to those organizations.

After strategy, the second most important element of effective leadership is defining the company culture, which typically includes vision, mission, and company values. Leaders have to be clear about key priorities. Otherwise, they will have a confused workforce. Goodman also emphasized the power of feedback, citing her own professional development. Absent honest feedback, we can get off track without even realizing it.

Leadership is dynamic. If the leadership model stays static, the company may not be as strategic as it should be. CEOs have a subtle challenge of setting decision principles broadly enough to inspire innovation. At the same time, they need to be selective regarding projects they choose to pursue to make sure the organization stays focused on its mission.

Leading in Crisis

When an organization is in crisis, leaders tend to switch to the command-and-control type of leadership. McGrath argues that, according to her research on inflection points, leading with the command-and-control style can be detrimental.

Thomas Kolditz studied crisis professionals who had to lead teams in dangerous places, such as during a time of war. He analyzed their techniques, approaches to leadership, and different strategies. In 2007, Kolditz wrote a book, In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It, where he documented his findings.

In dangerous situations, the first requirement of a leader is to keep people calm. In those moments, nobody needs more emotion. Instead, a leader should temper people's feelings and create focus. A leader must establish a vision for the path forward, even if the details are not yet clear at that moment. People need to trust the leader and feel a sense of purpose. Kolditz said the job of a leader is to "literally deny the possibility of failure."

Another requirement is to shift people's focus from themselves to the task at hand. They should be focusing on the environment, not on themselves. A leader should also create a sense of shared risk: stay together with the "troops," show vulnerability if things go wrong, and be prepared to take some of the responsibility. People are more comfortable being led by someone who can relate to them on a personal level, who can share common experiences, and who can communicate about similar topics.

Above all, in a dangerous situation, people are looking for a leader who is competent and who can get them through the danger. Kolditz's suggestion is to lead like a wartime leader all the time. McGrath summarizes her research on leading in crisis as following:

"The best leaders are continuously poised for wartime. Failing to put the practices in place to build trust, shared risk, and willingness to follow your lead during peacetime can lead to people being desperately ill-prepared in wartime. And as inflection points come at us more quickly and with greater consequences, falling into a purely peacetime pattern is dangerous."

Leave a Comment