How to lead in difficult times



The onset of 21st century has brought in a paradigm change in the demands and expectations from leaders. While the leadership in 20th century was marked by stability, predictability, scale, top-down approach and control by rules and hierarchy, however, 21st century has got characterized by discontinuous change, speed & responsiveness, collaboration, all pervasive leadership, permanent flexibility, entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and continuous technological upheaval, some of which is popularly characterized by the acronym “VUCA”- Volatile, Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous.

We often hear some leaders saying that their organizations are grappling with syndrome of “new demands, insufficient resources.” However, the fact of the matter is that the biggest leadership challenge of our times is not insufficient resources per se, but rather the inability to access the most valuable resources at their disposal.

People are often seen to be “overworked and underutilized.” Organizations that figure out how to better access this vastly underutilized resource don’t just become more enjoyable places to work; they also outperform their competitors. In this global environment this might well make the difference between companies that make it and those that don’t. Obviously, leadership becomes a critical force for leveraging the full capability of the organization, by accessing the intelligence and potential of people in organizations everywhere. It unearths and explains why some leaders create genius all around them while other leaders drain intelligence and capability from an organization.

Leaders inevitably make things better or worse for the people who follow them. Wherever you have a good leader, the team gets better, the organization gets better, the department or division gets better. And wherever you have a bad leader, everyone that leader impacts has a tougher time.

The best leaders are highly intentional about developing their people. But good or bad, leaders always impact their people. And if you want to know whether a leader is successful and effective, don’t look at — or listen to — the leader. Simply look at the people.

Peter Drucker has said – “The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker.

The most valuable assets of the 20th century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”

The organizations where leadership focuses on its people as their primary source of competitive advantage, and keeps enabling their continuous engagement and development, are the ones that lead the pack. If this part is not focused, business decays sooner than later, as has been proved by the steady decline of so many Fortune 500 companies who were at the top of charts ten years back but are now struggling to survive.

As per Lou Gerstner in the book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”, “If I could have chosen not to tackle the IBM culture head-on, I probably wouldn’t have. My bias coming in was toward strategy, analysis and measurement. In comparison, changing the attitude and behaviors of hundreds of thousands of people is very, very hard……[Yet] I came to see in my time at IBM that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.”

So how should leaders face the “VUCA” world?

  • Focus on purpose and values – be true to Mission critical tasks.
  • Leaders should connect and not hide, inspiring and energizing them in the process, while remembering “Different strokes for different folks” approach in dealing with multi-generational workforce.
  • Demonstrate commitment in motives and understanding;
  • Leadership is about the Leader changing with the needs. Uncertainty demands imagination, willingness to take risks and adoption of entrepreneurial approach to promote growth
  • Simplify strategy into specific actions, sets priorities and makes clear decisions
  • Maintain external focus by benchmarking the competition and defining success in market terms; Establish “growth” as the goal, and align the entire organizational capability to deliver it.

As per John Maxwell, the 4 most important questions that should be asked for analyzing leadership effectiveness in these times are:

  • Question #1:Are the people following? If someone with a leadership position has no followers, then that person has a position but isn’t really a leader. There is no such thing as a leader without followers! Every time a good leader makes the right moves with the right motives, the relationship strengthens and the team gets better.
  • Question #2:Are the people changing? People will become their best only if they are changing. And they are unlikely to change unless an effective leader is present to help facilitate the process.
  • Question #3: Are the people growing? The best leaders help people with more than their jobs; they help them with their lives. They help them become better people, not just better workers. And that has great power because growing people create growing organizations.
  • Question #4:Are the people succeeding? The bottom line in leadership is always results. Leaders may impress others when they succeed, but they impact others when their followers succeed. Peter Drucker observed, “Leadership is the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a man’s personality beyond its normal limitations.”

Leaders who endeavor to drive their business and stakeholders value while trying to answer the above 4 questions with full honesty and commitment, are the ones who always remain on top of their game and achieve enduring success in these difficult times.

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4 thoughts on “How to lead in difficult times

  1. This article gives us an insight as to how as HR Practitioners we should change our thinking. All HR practitioners should read.

  2. Very Awakening insights! Thanks for sharing Sir !

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