The Calm at the Center of the Storm | Gagen MacDonald

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The Calm at the Center of the Storm

Jan 08, 2015
In the months following the 9/11 terror attacks, there was a great deal of national dialogue and reflection on what it means to lead during times of crisis, uncertainty and fear. Rudy Guiliani, who was the Mayor of New York City at the time, led the city – and some might say, the nation – through the crisis of 9/11 and is often cited as the quintessential model of strong leadership under fire.As Guiliani later wrote in his autobiography, Leadership: “Leaders have to control their emotions under pressure. Much of your ability to get people to do what they have to do is going to depend on what they perceive when they look at you and listen to you. They need to see someone who is stronger than they are, but human, too.”Difficult times test a leader’s true grit. Guiliani’s example shows how effective leaders absorb change, bring clarity where there is uncertainty and fear, and calmly show the way forward. The ability of leaders to be the calm at the center of the storm is not only critical during times of catastrophic, life-altering events such as 9/11. It is every bit as important in the business world whether a company has a near- death experience like GM, Ford and Chrysler had during the financial meltdown, or is dealing with a major business and reputational hit such as JPMorgan Chase is with its multi-billion dollar trading loss or undergoing a significant change in strategy and organizational upheaval as Hewlett-Packard is now experiencing.A recent article in Businessweek by Stephen A. Miles and Nate Bennett describes how great leaders act effectively as “shock absorbers” in tumultuous times by taking personal responsibility for the problem, absorbing the emotion around them, keeping their cool and helping their teams work through the issues and problems. In their article, the authors point to five actions that “shock absorber” leaders demonstrate during trying times: (1) behavioral and emotional stability; (2) listen well but focus on the facts; (3) take time to make decisions; (4) take the front-line position; and (5) communicate effectively.Alan Mulally, who became CEO of Ford in 2006, has led the company’s amazing turnaround from the economic precipice to its re-emergence today as a positive, profitable symbol of the comeback of American manufacturing. Many credit Ford’s success to Mulally’s calm, enthusiastic and caring leadership style, which has enabled him to win the trust of employees and rally them around delivering on his One Ford vision. He epitomizes a shock absorber leader.Contrast that with the CEO of a company undergoing a series of layoffs who said to employees: “I’m not losing my job but I feel your pain.” Really? How do you think employees who were very concerned about looming layoffs felt about their CEO? I can tell you as one of those employees, his comment really undermined morale. Instead of absorbing the organization’s pain and uncertainty, he exacerbated it and lost the support of many. A few months later, the CEO was ousted by the Board.From 9/11 to Ford’s turnaround, there’s a strong case to be made that leaders who absorb change and uncertainty can have a profound effect on the way a company and its people respond when faced with adversity. How can we encourage more leaders to be calm, effective “shock absorbers”?
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