Leading in Tough Times – Some Perspectives : Feature Article; V3 Issue 1

In easy times resources are relatively abundant and the environment is relatively stable. Employees are excited, committed and eager to contribute. Potential customers are cash rich and are willing and able to buy your product. You can reasonably assume what works today will work tomorrow.  In difficult times the opposite is true and the business is challenged on multiple dimensions. What this essentially means is that in tough times leaders need to review and re-calibrate their leadership stance to sustain energy in their companies and to ensure their companies continue thriving.


Sustaining the energy

Let’s begin with the balance required between optimism and critical skepticism. In easy times, it is the leader’s responsibility to be skeptical when everyone around is getting excited and thinking everything will work. Being skeptical enough to ensure that passion and drive find effective and productive channels, works in good times. In difficult times, you need to lean towards the other end ie., keeping hope alive and reminding everyone about the numerous possibilities. Grounded optimism, reinforced with data keeps team energies buoyant. It’s a delicate balance to strike – grounded optimism which convinces the team, not exaggerated optimism that makes the rest of the organization skeptical. Stay credible enough to persuade. And also be inspiring.

I like this example of inspiration. At the end of World War II, Japanese business leader Matsushita stood before a gathering of his dejected, demoralized workforce, in an occupied country, with all the company’s inventory taken by the occupying power. He spoke about how taking the lead in quality and innovation and low prices would force competitors to do the same and “in 250 years would eliminate poverty in Japan.” He sat down to silence. Then, one by one his employees stood up, some with tears in their eyes, and said “I think I could dedicate my life to this.” Much of Japan’s progress can be traced back to moments like this in its history. As a leader you must also leverage the power of a shared purpose in these tough times.  Focus energy on long-term goals, especially stretch ones. Goals set a direction. Every day, people will think of that goal and how to move towards it. A stretch goal is like the Star. If you keep your eye fixed on the Star, you aim high and challenge your abilities - you may not reach the Star. But you will also go farther up than someone who is looking only at the apple on a tree. In difficult times, stretch goals look even more unattainable than they do in easy times. You will find people throwing up their hands, saying “That’s impossible! I’m just going to stay focused on the apple.”  As a leader, watch out for this tendency and help them deal with it.

Now in the process of reaching for the Stars there are bound to be mistakes. Adding to that, the cautious sentiment slows responses to changing environmental conditions, stress levels are higher and mistakes tend to get magnified. Also mistakes are more often visible since the world is less forgiving, now. Make your people realize how in such times, it is even more important that we handle mistakes and disappointments well. Mistakes are part of learning how to be effective in the current context.   If we handle a mistake well, the penalty is small. If we mishandle it say by covering it up etc then the penalty can be severe. Honest mistakes are not avoidable and rarely will they destroy a company. But not dealing with them in an honest and straightforward manner can have far reaching negative consequences for the company. Feeling less valuable, less knowledgeable, and less effective are likely outcomes of making more mistakes.  And this can sap productivity. As a leader, you can help ensure that those perfectly normal feelings do not interfere with your team members’ ability to contribute. Ensure your people retain confidence in themselves.

Another thing that can happen is infighting. When budgets are tighter, it is quite common to see employees becoming defensive, territorial, and competitive. Intensified negative politics at all levels can sap valuable energy and focus, causing a failure in meeting the challenges of facing external threats from competitors, customers, and suppliers. So, create more opportunities to bring your people together, encouraging questions and healthy discussions.

When the going is good there is money to spend on training and benefits, career growth opportunities exist, monetary rewards are strong. Limited business growth impacts all of them and employees may feel financially challenged.   Let people know that "we are in this together." You must also make sacrifices if you are asking or expecting your people to do so. Consider the example of Delta Airlines. While the senior people at most airlines took bonuses amidst record losses, the CEO of Delta Airlines turned down his yearly salary. This prompted a business column to say that Delta was "least likely" to go out of business of all major U.S. airlines. So, say a big ‘NO’ to any management bonuses while initiating layoffs.

Talking of layoffs, in tough times, employees get nervous about job security, career progress and sustainability of company operations. When things are going good, employees hearing about them through newspapers is fine. But bad news should always be conveyed by insiders first. Leaders should keep the channels of communication wide open, keeping people informed about what is happening and how the company is responding. When rumors do emerge, respond promptly. Communicate more than usual and more than you think you need to. During tough times employees need to see more of you. Taking regular rounds and chatting up with employees is essential in such times to be more visible and accessible. There is the story of Xenophon, a Greek military leader in 400 B.C.E., who believed in the value of making himself accessible to even the lowest ranks of his men. With the Athenian army in danger of imminent attack and its back to a raging river two of Xenophon’s foot soldiers managed to locate a river crossing that would allow the army to escape. Because of the trust between the leader and his followers they went directly to Xenophon with their discovery. Xenophon took immediate action, and the army succeeded in escaping.

Now I know I have not touched upon the business aspects in our discussion. I leave that to the management strategist. But a clear opportunity exists to align the entire organization for efficiency. Improve the coordination and alignment of departments, strengthen performance tracking and review mechanisms, focus on waste management, lean principles etc.   Leaders should frame an agenda and meet with key stakeholders to gain support and build commitment to efficiency goals.

More than ever be curious, become aware - to understand and deal with your company’s situation better.  You need fresh ideas to help you respond to the new challenges and opportunities effectively. Read more broadly than before. Be alert for trends, ideas and approaches that you have never explored before. Question your assumptions. Always ask yourself: “What if…” and explore possibilities.  Connect with leading thinkers in your industry.  

Lastly a word on values and culture, Ok maybe more than a word. Under tough conditions, typically rational people can start to act in ways that are self-destructive and dangerous for the organization. In such scenarios organization’s values and culture can protect against this. A person previously good with maintaining client relationships may now start focusing more on squeezing the client rather than considering the best interests of the client. But a company that values client progress will be able to discourage such behaviour. In difficult times leaders have to pay even more attention to the values and culture of their organization. One way to do this is by a leader personally responding to changes effectively.


Personally responding to changes effectively

Your assumptions dictate your personal response to changes. Personal responses predispose you to certain behaviors or practices. Your behavior sets the tone for the behaviors of other people in the organization. This is how your company’s culture is formed. Hence responding effectively to any change be it recession or some other crisis is essential. Lee J. Colan, Ph.D. in his article ‘Here We Go Again Leading in Tough Times’ describes the following three common personal responses of a leader to change, with corresponding alternate and effective responses for each one.

Exemplary leadership
The most striking leadership we have seen in recent times has been the way Barack Obama ran his election campaign despite being faced with many challenges. Business leaders can draw lots of lessons from the way he organized and led his campaign team.

  • Obama created a grassroots movement by building an ever expanding organization of empowered leaders, who in turn engaged people from their social networks like Facebook.

  • The entire organization was aligned around a single goal of electing Obama as President, a reaching for the Stars goal.

  • Everybody operated with common values - "Offer messages of hope, don't denigrate our opponents, refuse to make deals".

  • Campaign leaders subordinated their egos and personal ambitions to the greater goal. Those who deviated quickly exited.

  • Obama set a clear, consistent tone from the top and never wavered, even when things weren't going well.

  • Obama's greater mission transcended internal goals, such as fundraising, endorsements, and campaign events. Each of these areas had goals tied to the greater mission.

  • The campaign team used the most modern Internet tools to communicate, motivate and inspire people and to guide their actions. Each day, 5 million people received personal messages from campaign headquarters or even Obama himself. This organization collaborated across a wide range of geographies and campaign functions, all tightly integrated nationally and executed locally.



There are several ways to lead differently in tough times. The ones I have listed are only a few among them. But what is important for you as a leader is to reflect. Reflect on every aspect of your leadership, on what you normally do and then see what you need to do differently. Some actions may have to be done a little differently and, others quite differently. This approach will see you providing effective leadership for your people, in good times as well as bad.



  • Lehman, J, ‘Leadership in difficult times is different’, Jan 13 2009, http://www.livemint.com/2009/01/13212610/Leadership-in-difficult-times.html?h=B.
  • Dr. Izzo, J, ‘Leading in Tough Times’, September 2008, http://www.theizzogroup.com/pdfs/NL/The%20Enlightened%20Leader%20Volume%2025%20Sept. %202008%20Dr.%20John%20Izzo.pdf.
  • Colan,L.,J, ‘Here We Go Again Leading in Tough Times’, http://changethis.com/pdf/53.03.DownturnLeadership.pdf.
  • ‘How to inspire people in tough times - Kotter on Matsushita’, http://www.theleadershiphub.com/blogs/how-inspire-people-tough-times-kotter-matsushita.
  • George,B, ‘Obama: A leader for the ‘we’ generation’, Jan. 19, 2009, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28693786/.
  • Slack,K, ‘Leading During a Recession’,http://www.forum.com/libraries/white_paper/leadrcssus.pdf.