When the Next Shoe Drops

LEADERSHIP IN TIMES OF CRISIS AND UNCERTAINTY:

by

Ralph Bates

Our commerce and institutions are more fragile and vulnerable than at any time in the last century. There are few times in history that we as a nation have faced such deep and troublesome uncertainty as we try to assess the unprecedented challenges produced by 9-11. We are left wondering when the next terrorist attack will reach our shores, how long the war on terrorism will take, how much further the recession will go in depth and time?

There is ample information about how our nation has survived prior economic hard times, or difficult periods, as those times seem to run in cycles. The baseline event was the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing depression. While we have since avoided a depression, we have regularly experienced stock market “bears,” recessions, and record-breaking levels of unemployment. The 20th Century saw major wars or conflicts every 20 years or so.

September 11 precipitated a crisis unknown to this generation of America’s leaders at all levels and sectors. Some leaders are searching for answers that redefine and clarify their new roles in these bitterly challenging times. They are wondering how to prepare now for the next shoe to drop without obsessing to distraction. They understand that, given our nation’s historic geopolitical interests and natural resource appetite, we could be drawn into conflict at any time. Although what is on the horizon cannot be determined, a sense of expectancy pervades the air. Such uncertainty and impending high risk compels leaders to adjust to and create new rules and roadmaps for the future.

What we have learned from the past is that if we adopt a balanced vision of the future, one that assumes the possibilities for both highs and lows or the best and the worst, we increase the range of our response capabilities. Some of the challenges we face now are not new but their intensity, urgency, and stakes leave a growing sense of inadequacy and anxiety about appropriate responses. Security, for example, an issue that previously has been left to the Security Department, is now discussed at top levels and Board rooms because the risks are higher, potentially more massive and more imminent. Downsizing and layoffs appear to be more necessary at a time when recession requires maintaining or increasing consumer spending. For most leaders this becomes a double bind: the welfare of the organization versus the welfare of loyal employees in a time of national crisis. To deepen the recession by what seem like necessary business imperatives justified in normal times, delivers a victory to the terrorists and potentially weakens the patriotic bonds that we most need at this time. Both top and bottom lines become harder to maintain or grow in the face of these conditions thus leaving leaders with fewer options when they need more. How do you increase motivation, which leads to greater efficiency and productivity, in the face of these challenges? Stress and its physical and productivity manifestations take an additional toll on all workers and the work itself. Prior rules of the game or rules of engagement, internally and externally, no longer give leaders the critical outlines of the roadmap they once used to achieve success for themselves, their people and the organization.

Difficult and uncertain times call for leaders to seek and create new opportunities. The aftermath of 9-11 forces leaders to acknowledge that the old ways alone will not answer the uncertainties of the near future. Old habits and patterns which previously yielded success must now be examined for relevance in this new world. Leaders are challenged to reinvent themselves by bringing forward the best from their past and proactively searching for, experimenting with, discovering, and learning new or re-integrated beliefs and behaviors.

The most successful leaders will be those who openly address their fears and anxieties in dialogue with their people; visibly and by example act like we are truly all in this together; demonstrate their sacrifices when employees’ jobs are sacrificed; remain stable in the face of change; and, coach their people to learn and grow in the face of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. This proactive questioning, experimenting and modeling by leaders will create the new rules and roadmaps of the future that will guide them and us through crises and uncertainty.

Will you and your organization be ready “when the next shoe drops?” Only if you prepare yourself now for the increasing demands of leadership.

© Ralph Bates 2004