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Leading in tough times

A difficult business climate calls for different leadership skills, says Nigel Nicholson. He offers techniques for helping people to ...

By Nigel Nicholson . 01 June 2009

A difficult business climate calls for different leadership skills, says Nigel Nicholson. He offers techniques for helping people to cope with stress and uncertainty and, at the same time, to focus their attention positively on the future.
LeadingintoughtimesThe Chinese character for “threat” combines the two pictograms for danger and opportunity. Many areas of the business world are in states of turmoil, with employees facing increasing pressures, cost cutting, threats to jobs and a climate of high anxiety. This is amplified by the fact that it is shared – people see the whites of the eyes of uncomfortable bosses or feel the emotions of others who share their position. Some feel they are competing for survival. At such times, the need for leadership is paramount. In fact, this is not just a time of need but a time of opportunity for people to reveal a new and perhaps unseen capability for leadership – people who can act with the wisdom and skill that today’s challenges require.

The history of leadership tells us that leaders emerge to meet the challenges of their times. Over much of the last decade, we had been living in an era when the key attributes necessary were for leaders with the mindset and skills needed to grow a business in a climate of abundance and opportunity. Of course, there are new growth opportunities in the present climate, but they are currently in small pockets. For many people, today’s economic landscape is bleaker; and, for all, it is uncertain. These times require a different kind of leadership from the expansionist ethos to which we had become accustomed. They call for a much more savvy, psychological style of leadership, one that is emotionally intelligent and visionary in order to lead people beyond their overwhelming immediate concerns.

It is in this spirit that I offer 10 rules for leaders who must step forward and excel in this business climate. These depend upon a correct understanding of the psychology of threat and uncertainty. It’s critical for leaders to comprehend the mindset of followers, especially in turbulent times.


Survival and success


Following are my 10 rules for survival and success in the current climate.

Understand the psychology of pain, fear, threat and anxiety. This is both quite subtle and quite complex. I have summarized key elements of this psychology in the boxed text. The need is for leaders to understand correctly what people typically do and think in response to such feelings. Many people’s reactions will not be what we are used to seeing from them.

Steady emotions. Buffer people, as far as possible, from short-term pressures yet make sure that they have something meaningful to do. If a major part of their role has disappeared, create a project for them around something that needs doing.

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