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Leadership Perspectives
by James A. DeSena

How does a leader stay focused and maintain certainty and his or her bearings during a time of great duress?

How does a leader keep people focused on business and support them when changes are needed?

Those were two of the questions executives from a number of leading companies explored during a recent teleconference call moderated by Jim DeSena, CSP, speaker and author of salesleaders.com. With the events of September and the economic consequences stemming from them, the challenges facing people in leadership positions changed dramatically. Conclusions from these executives emerged in seven key areas:

1. Talk with other leaders. One way for a leader to get an opportunity to express his or her own reactions to situations is to talk with other leaders. Employees look to their leaders when there is uncertainty for direction, calmness and information. To whom does the leader look? One of the best options is one's peers. Talking with our peers gives us the opportunity to validate our thinking and place it in a larger context.

2.  Communicate more with employees. Employees always need good and frequent communication. During times of duress, plan on at least double whatever communication you normally do. The larger the organization, the more that communication needs to be planned. Whether you work in a small or large organization, it is beneficial to walk around and find out what is going on in your immediate area. With a large, national organization, senior executives should be listening to employees and then sending a message that communicates understanding of employee concerns, even if they are not certain what the future may hold. Each manager should strive to create a "small company feel," in his or her group.

3. Respond, don't react. Overreacting causes more stress, more uncertainty. Controlling the urge to do something irrational becomes paramount. Thinking about what's important for employees is more productive than what's important to the executive. One executive said, "People ask me what's next. Nothing is next. But I can't guarantee it." "It's nice to ride the wave of success when things are doing well. Now, we are being tested."  People need faith that things will turn out ok. They look to their leaders to remain calm, composed and compassionate. (Witness Mayor Guiliani.)

4.  Give people an outlet. In times of extraordinary stress, people need someone to listen to them. They need to express themselves, to channel their emotions. They also need moments when they can relax and get away from the reality. One executive said he goes to remote locations when employees working odd hours. He brings "comfort" foods. He might spontaneously say, "Let's go to a hockey game." Another executive was closing one office and moving some of the people to another. He said people felt displaced. Then one of the employees stood up and announced, "we're a team and we are going to make this happen." That one pronouncement changed their outlook from one of pessimism to one of hope. A consultant who worked on a pro bono project to estimate the economic effects of 911 on NYC said of his work, ""This project personally gave me a way to channel the grief I felt, the sadness I felt, the overwhelming sense of lack of control about the world we live."

5.   Be extra empathetic.  It's hard to understand what people in other parts of the country are experiencing. People don't experience the same stressors. It's not the same if you're not in Washington, D.C. or New York.  One of the greatest qualities a leader can bring to bear in times of duress is the quality of empathy. Executives need to balance between their desire to get people back to work and the workers need to express their concerns. Too little empathy on the part of an executive can destroy employee loyalty in an instant and hopes for a quick return to a productive work environment will not materialize. On the other hand, it is important to get to a point where people can get focused again on work, recognizing that each employee is different. One executive from a national childcare company noted, "There isn't one strategy. There are many strategies." She understood how different each employee could be.

6.   Be visible. "I can't be there all the time, even when I want to, but I don't want the image that he is hiding in his office." Employees want to see their leaders. Seeing them raises their spirits and confidence. A woman who is the president of a chamber of commerce said that when she was in HR she would "walk through the facility, seeing people personally, on both shifts. People felt they had a friend."

7.  Adapt.  Leaders need to be ready to quickly change their thinking and actions to fit the circumstances. (How can we expect employees to be adaptable if we're not?) Leaders can admit that sometimes, there aren't quick good answers to tough problems.  But leaders believe they will determine the best course of action given the options, "seeing good responses when it is hard to have any response at all."        

(c)2001 James A. DeSena of Performance Achievement Systems, Inc. is a speaker and consultant to industry. Jim specializes in working with sales leaders, providing seminars, speeches and planning retreats. For additional free information, call 800-4321-WIN or visit

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