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The Real Test of Leadership

Leadership, at the best of times, is more art than science. It is all about having the heart, desire, aptitude, and in some cases the internal wiring, to want to effectively lead people. Leadership can be shown in a variety of ways and not necessarily because you are in a management position. It has been my experience though, that real leaders show their mettle, not when times are good or when things are rolling along, but when the proverbial rubber meets the road. That is, you can really tell who the great leaders during the tumultuous organizational times.

Tough TimesNow, that is not to say that good leadership isn’t demonstrated when things are going well. There is still a lot to said about someone who is able to provide effective leadership (at all) when an organization is flush with cash or when a particular project is being well funded. Being able to guide, direct, mentor and motivate staff towards a shared goal or broader vision is a truly valuable skillset and we all know how scarce that skillset is in today’s workforce. However, during the aforementioned “good times”, it is a bit easier to engage with employees and have them buy into your leadership approach. As part of my talent acquisition/management practices, I have always tried to hire and/develop people who have demonstrated that innate ability to lead under pressure and who are able to rally their staff during the challenging times.

Specifically, I am referring to those leaders who are able to effectively guide, motivate and support their teams through turbulent, often nebulous, situations. The real test of leadership comes when trying to get a team to buy into a difficult decision that has affected them or their co-workers personally, or one that leaves them with an unsettling sense of what their future may hold employment-wise. You often see this ‘real’ test occur when someone has to lead their team through one of the following types of situations:

• Organizational downsizing (overall or specific to their department)
• Termination of an employee(s) for poor performance (i.e. not for cause, may also have been a ‘popular’ employee)
• Managing broad organizational financial cutbacks – i.e. reduced or eliminated training budgets, travel reductions, etc.
• Outsourcing of support functions
• Physical office relocations or physical relocations of departments

There are many other situations like these, but these are some of the bigger hitters. If you have ever been a part of one of those situations, think about how your organizational leader(s) handled it. Were they frazzled, provided little to no communication, hid out in their offices and/or focused on how the changes impacted them personally? Obviously these ‘leaders’ didn’t pass the real test!

The true test of leadership has been met and passed when leaders provide responses, such as the following, during these difficult times:

• Great leaders are front and centre with employees during tough times. They are visible and accessible to their staff. They do not hide and are not ‘afraid’ to answer questions.
• They also answer the tough questions – they focus on the business impact when answering the why and how but then can effectively relate to the personal impact that their staff is experiencing. They are also adept at not speculating and obtain answers for their staff when they themselves do not have the answers to their questions – they don’t leave their employees hanging.
• They focus their teams on the future. They acknowledge the current difficult situation but are adept at getting their teams to take control of the present and focus on the future.
• Great leaders know when to “push” and when to “pull” their employees during the difficult times. They are adept at understanding the individual motivational needs of their employees and know when it is appropriate to push ahead and when to pull back a bit as they re-engage their staff again.

For sure, the rockier road is the one that forges the best leaders. When hiring, look for people who have had to lead during difficult times. Ask them how they led their teams through it, what they learned and what they would do differently. Internally, look for employees that show a willingness to take on formal or informal leadership roles during the tough times. Who is able to rise to the top during challenging situations? Who does the staff turn to when the going gets tough? If these people are currently in leadership roles, you need to support them as organizational champions. If they aren’t yet in a formal leadership role, you may want to consider them as part of your leadership development activities. As always I welcome your comments and feedback.


Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net



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