• Dr Chan Abraham

What does a leader do when things go wrong? Leadership in tough times...


"Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character, but if you must be without one, be without the strategy."[1] So, because every leader will encounter at least one significantly challenging event in their lifetime, I would suggest that these words resonate with us all.

Leadership is recognised as essential at all levels in any enterprise – whether in business, government, politics and faith communities. It is also vital in the most important component of human society and flourishing: the family.

True, no one doubts that skilful forward planning and management of strategy are essential for a thriving business. But this is to be contrasted with leadership, whose has diverse hues have become increasingly better discerned in recent years. This is important, because leadership manifests in different ways, and is influenced, among other things, by the context, circumstances, culture, people and the leader themselves.

A prime example of how leadership has grown to be understood differently is in the value of people engagement - especially employees, but other stakeholders as well. This has been more widely embraced over the past decade, so that increasingly boards and CEOs have begun to accept – even if really to not understand - that, to achieve the objectives of the enterprise you really do need to take your people with you. And while this might appear obvious, the behaviour of people at the top of organisations in all sectors reveals that this is not yet in their DNA.

So here’s one way of expressing why this problem arises. The disconnect is not about systems, processes or any organisational or management issue; it is something that is not functioning properly at the very core of leader’s being.

There appears still to be relatively little understanding of the relevance of what I call the leader's inner life. Indeed, in the western world we may feel a little uneasy about bringing in something of a spiritual dimension into the discussion. People in UK businesses seem to find this kind of discussion and analysis particularly uncomfortable.

Consequently, there hasn’t been a huge dialogue about its impact upon others, especially when the going gets really tough, and how it determines whether a leader fails, survives or succeeds.

While not restricted to leaders, the "dark night of the soul" describes how life's most serious problems afflict us at the core of our being. That's when our values, vision and purpose are tried and tested. If, as John Haggai says, the first task of the leader is to keep hope alive, how are they to achieve that noble goal if they are falling apart inside? The intensity of those particular challenges, affecting our mind and emotions, resembles high-heat refining processes used for precious metals. The outcome reveals whether our inner life meets the gold standard, or is really dross.

To survive, and also ultimately to succeed, a leader needs a metaphorical three-pronged grappling hook to grab a positive outcome from a potentially difficult, damaging or even disastrous situation.

First, awareness of our own thoughts and inner voice will help avoid judging ourselves or others in an absolute way. Without minimising or denying the reality of the situation, leaders should give themselves and others opportunity for redemption. This also helps to sustain self-confidence, which is often an early casualty when things are difficult.

Second, self-encouragement is a discipline that enables a leader to wring positive energy from a negative episode, where villainous self-pity or self-deprecation may otherwise seek to rob, kill and destroy an inspired solution.

Finally, while several attributes compete for the third spot, a demanding but truly powerful one is forgiveness. In testing times it is difficult to give either yourself or others the latitude presented by grace - where you honestly acknowledge the problem, but also create the space for restoration, recovery and renewal. Yet this is precisely what is needed to open the door to the next phase of your journey of hope.

Leaders appear to experience a natural cycle of triumphs and failures. Either can be used by a leader to produce a better future outcome by applying the principles of awareness of their own thoughts and inner voice, self-encouragement and forgiveness. The leader who does so is likely to emerge positively from adverse circumstances and either to take their enterprise forward to renewed success, or to move positively into a new beginning elsewhere.

[1]General Norman Schwarzkopf, supreme Allied Commander, first Gulf War

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