Leadership Under Stress—New Year Reflections

I have become increasingly interested in the manner in which people react to stress and pressure. It is under stress that people show their courage, values, and ability to make decisions in the best interest of those they serve. Perhaps there is no better example of this than Nelson Mandela stripping Winnie, his wife of 38 years, shortly after being released from prison. Mandela discovered that while in prison, Winnie had misused her power and acted unethically in setting the direction of the African National Congress (ANC). Winnie had stood by her husband and carried his banner for 27 years while he was in prison. He reached deep inside himself and made one of the most difficult decisions of his life. Eventually, the two were divorced.

It takes a special type of leader who can balance his or her personal feelings and emotions with the difficult and gut-wrenching decisions that must be made in the interest of teams, organizations, communities, and families. These types of individuals seem to carry an internal compass or “north star” that signals to them the authentic, ethical, and responsible course of action.

The opposite is also true. I have witnessed the actions of many who simply cannot rise above their own feelings of hurt, failure, resentment, insecurity, and frustration and act in ways that are destructive to the welfare of others. They seem to carry a mindset of “if I can’t have what I need then I will drag others down behind me if I have to…”   It is indeed a regrettable and damaging brand of leadership and the reason behind the demise of many organizations.

It is under pressure that the true colors show up. The indicators may include the following:

  • Willing to allocate reward and recognition fairly outside own areas of interest and passion
  • Readily admitting to poor decision making, taking accountability, and making transparent the assumptions, process, and thinking behind past actions
  • Not reverting to finger pointing and blame. Mindful of the effect on the team/organization
  • Carrying a learning mindset that signals humility and passion for “getting it right” rather than reflexive decisions and actions to cover up or create short-term fixes

I was working recently with a Senior Executive. During one of the meetings he was asked questions that he could not answer. Rather than noting these questions and meeting privately with his team, he chose to voice his displeasure publically and to distance himself from his team. He blamed them for not keeping him informed and threatened punitive actions.

The measure of a great leader is not what people say about him or her in pre-rehearsed, manicured, and scripted public appearances. It is what those closest to her say when experiencing their leadership under stress. Anybody with adequate intelligence and resources can lead during good times. However, leaders that can keep their balance, equanimity, ethics, and values during stressful times are rare indeed and command a great premium. Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 after a 12-year absence from the company he had founded and was dismissed from. Apple was close to bankruptcy at the time. Over the next decade Jobs not only revitalized the company, but turned it into one of the most important brands of our time. In those first months when the media was writing off the company as irrelevant and Apple employees/investors were not sure of the future,  Jobs held an informal staff meeting. Here is part of what he told them

“This is a very complicated world. It’s a very noisy world. We’re not going to get a chance for people to remember a lot about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear about what they want them to know about us. Our customers want to know what we stand for. What we’re about is not making boxes for people to get their jobs done. Although we do that very well. Apple is about more than that. We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. That’s what we believe.”

With those words Jobs started a journey that has literally changed the world and the way we live our lives. Apple is now one of the most successful organizations in the history of mankind. There are many who are not fond of Jobs and his unrelenting drive and singular focus. However, no one doubts or disputes Jobs’ ability to use his and the Apple values as the guiding principles to guide the company from the brinks of bankruptcy to one of the most important global brands.

Questions For On Line Conversation:

  1. What are some examples of leadership under stress that you have observed?
  2. What stuck with you?
  3. How would you lead under stress? What will guide you??
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