“These are the times that try men’s souls.” So said Thomas Paine in December 1776 (you know, back when Gini Dietrich was in kindergarten!). And while we’re not facing what our forebears faced that winter, I think it’s safe to say that all of us, whether we’re entrepreneurs, in the agency business, on the corporate side, or in just about any business, are experiencing uncertain times.
What will happen in Ukraine? Will prices keep coming down, or will they bounce back to what they were a few months ago (especially the price of food and fuel.) And facing the 600-lb gorilla in the room, will we be in a recession this fall, as many are predicting?
And while there is good news from time to time, it seems like that for each piece of positive economic news, there are a few bad ones. Even the optimist in me must face the fact that the smoke signals from the world of PR, at least from the agency side, is that these are tough times.
So those you lead, whether it’s one person or a 100, need your leadership more than ever. But the good news is that there are seven steps you can take to lead through these times. All of these have always been hallmarks of great leadership. But they’re needed now more than ever:
Take Care of Yourself
My counsel to leaders is always to look within first. For you to be able to lead teams who are hearing bad news, both in media and potentially from their clients, you must be fit. And I don’t just mean physically fit (though that is more important than ever), but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
There’s a reason that when we fly on airplanes, we’re instructed to put on our own oxygen masks before assisting our traveling companions. The same is true in leadership: you can only help lift up your teams if your cup is full. So whether you ride bicycles (like someone we all adore), do yoga, employ exercise videos, meditate, do mindfulness, or some combination thereof, now is the time to do it, start doing it again, or do more of it.
And remember, there’s nothing selfish about it. And let’s not have the excuse that you don’t have time to do this. That’s like saying, “I don’t have time to lead effectively. But I have the time to lead ineffectively.” Insane, right?
If you won’t do this for yourself (and your family), do it for your teams. They need you at their best to be at their best.
Tune In to Your Team
You need to understand what each of your direct reports and the members of your broader organization are feeling and experiencing. Some are able to “go with the flow.” Others will be deeply affected by negative news or calls from clients with bad news and will take a long time to recover from the same. And don’t assume they’re fine just because you’re fine. You may have lived through previous downturns (anyone remember 2008/09?). Or you simply may have more built-in (or, more likely, honed) resilience.
When they’re in that state, they’re not focused on the clients or media or able to lead those who report to them. You can step in and help coach them through it. But only if you’re aware of the state they’re in.
So get that antenna on high. Do you sense anxiety or discomfort rather than courage and confidence? Does their body language not match their language? If you suspect something’s wrong, you’re ignoring it at your own peril.
Tune In to Your Clients
This may be more management than leadership, but so be it. As I’ve always said, clients turn to PR pros and agencies for a number of things: Competence, Critical Thinking, Communications, and, this isn’t always discussed, Confidence! And this is truer during scary times than ever.
Your clients are experiencing the same environment that you are. They’re not only concerned about how they’ll achieve their deliverables should they need to cut back on their agencies’ programs, but they’re also probably concerned about how much work they’ll need to assume should some of their peers, support, or bosses be laid off. And unless their heads are in the sand, they’re worried about their own positions. They’re scared.
And let’s face it, you may be concerned about the state of your business. This might lead you to be in touch less.
You need to be in touch more: To listen to them, to be a shoulder, if need be, and to be a sounding board. And to constantly bring them new, strategic ideas on what they can do to market effectively during a downturn.
As you dial up your communications, you may indeed hear some difficult news. Delaying hearing that news won’t help you. Anything but. In fact, the earlier you hear this news, the sooner you can determine your plan to lead through it.
So be in touch, listen, and ask. It’s not knowing that can harm your organization.
Those of us who’ve survived previous downturns know that we sometimes face tough decisions. My advice to you: make them!
We sometimes delay decisions due to discomfort or somehow thinking that things may just get better, so we won’t have to take decisive action. Or we must think through our options. Again, and again, and again. It’s paralysis by analysis.
And some leaders put off a decision because they need more information. And then more. And even more.
I’m calling bullshit on all of that. The moment we sense that we might we need to make a tough decision, we do. We’re sensing things in play in the marketplace that won’t get better. In fact, they’ll only get worse if we don’t take action.
Remember, delaying a decision is making a decision: A decision to stay with the status quo. Or a decision to face an even bigger challenge caused by our indecision. If today’s problem is tough, why turn it into an even tougher tomorrow?
Many leaders worry about making the “wrong” decision. But remember, “worry” is never a good business growth, management, or leadership strategy. Also, remember, you’re smart, you’re strategic, you’re flexible, no? If you make the “wrong” decision, you’ll course-correct.
Remember, the only truly wrong decision is not deciding.
So make the decision. Go ahead. You’ll thank me!
Trust Your Gut
We talk about trusting one’s gut, but is that real? Is it based on science?
Yes. Yes, it is!
I’ve always thought of our gut feelings as very real, as the cumulative motherlode of all our previous learning from having been in similar experiences. So even if you haven’t experienced a recession, you’ve likely experienced the economic downturn of ’08/’09.
And if you didn’t experience that downturn or weren’t in a position of management or leadership, after all, it was 15 or so years ago, you’ve certainly experienced downturns or negative situations. What served you well then? It may well serve you now.
The most important point is that sometimes we ignore our gut feelings and replace that with thinking or overthinking. As my grandmother would say, “Nicht Gut!”
Why think or overthink when your gut is telling you exactly what to do? You may not realize it, but your gut remembers you’ve had similar experiences before. It knows exactly what you should do. Ignore it at your own peril!
Get Your Game Face On
Let’s face it, it’s scary to lead today. But if you want to be a truly courageous and effective leader, you can never let them see you sweat.
Sure, you can and should be honest when you don’t know the answer, but any fear you exhibit about the future will be seen, heard, and perceived by your teams, and that will only increase their fear. And when people focus on their fears, it affects how their brains function, making it extremely difficult to do the jobs of communications practitioners—the jobs you need them to do. So if you’re experiencing fear, whatever you do, don’t share it with your teams.
That doesn’t mean you should go it alone. Anything but. You can share it with your spouse or significant other, friends, trusted family members, dog, or coach. You should have a “kitchen cabinet” or an informal board of advisors to whom you can turn to clear that fear and get good counsel. Some benefit from working with a Vistage Group.
All of these groups can be good sounding boards and support groups during difficult times. But with your teams, have your game face on!
I’ve been saying this for years: courageous leaders are magnetic. Followers, including team members, clients, peers, and, yes, their bosses, are drawn to courageous leaders like moths to a flame. And this is never truer than during challenging or uncertain times. And that’s now.
Difficult times created the environment for, gave rise to, or perhaps demanded leaders who, most of all, led with courage, giving their followers the bravery to face adversity. Think Lincoln during the Civil War, FDR during the Depression and World War II, and Churchill during the Blitz.
Leading Through Uncertain Times
If there ever was a time to get in touch with your inner Malala, Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, or Rosa Parks, it’s now.
And if you’re not a history nerd like me, know that you can have courageous heroes who’ll inspire you today. Just think about a member of your family or a friend who’s gotten through tough times by tapping their courage. Perhaps it’s someone in your current organization or where you worked before.
In full candor, I wasn’t always the most courageous leader back when I was in agency management and leadership. Fortunately, I had people who worked for me who were incredibly courageous.
Remember, when you display bravery during tough times, you’re not only benefiting your teams, peers, organization, and clients, you may actually become someone else’s inspiring courage hero.
So there you have it: seven steps you can take to lead through the toughest times, no matter how tough they are.