4 Ways to Lead During Turbulent Times

By Tim Irwin

A couple of years out of college, my future wife, Anne, moved to Washington State from Wisconsin where she’d been living. She and her roommate pulled a large U-Haul trailer with all their worldly possessions on the long trip. They reached the Continental Divide, and it was Anne’s turn to drive, as they headed toward the western side of the mountains. The beauty of the pristine snow against a piercing blue sky, the crisp air and the dramatic vistas of the Rocky Mountains refreshed them from their many hours on the road.

After traveling down the steep grade a few hundred yards, the trailer began to rock violently, pushing the car from side to side. Other cars traveling in both directions tried to move out of the way of what appeared to be a catastrophic accident in the making. Anne fought unsuccessfully to control the car, the tires squealing as the trailer tossed the car in every direction. Just as Anne started to step on the brakes, her roommate screamed, “Anne, don’t step on the brakes, step on the gas!” Anne later said that accelerating the car went against every instinct—she wanted the car to slow down before they crashed. Within a few seconds of stepping on the gas the trailer settle down and began to roll smoothly behind the car.

Anne admitted later that the steep downhill grade made her drive tentatively. Gravity took over and the heavy trailer began to move faster than the car. It quickly stepped out of its rightful position as a “follower” and attempted to pass the car with nearly disastrous results. Stepping on the gas caused the car to pull the trailer as intended, but Anne had to speed up to get the car to move ahead and reassert its position as the “leader.”

Organizations today face some of the most difficult conditions imaginable…the turbulence index is off the charts. News reports warn of a new impending disaster every day. While leaders understandably are uncertain and tentative, now is actually the time to step on the gas. Now is the time to lead…to get out in front, perhaps as never before..

What can leaders do to “step on the gas?” Four actions come to mind:

1. Provide inspired direction—remind members of your organization of the mission. Help them to remember why the product or service you provide to your customers is valuable, noble and meaningful. If paid fairly, people will always work harder for meaning than they will for money.

2. Provide your followers with the opportunity for an “emotional exchange.” Let them express their concerns, worries, and uncertainties. A worker’s act of expressing a concern goes a long way toward mitigating the anxiety that worry creates. When you as the leader listen deeply to people’s concerns, it conveys respect. Don’t you work harder for someone who conveys respect for you?

3. Build trust with the member of your organization. You do this by keeping your commitments—do what you say you’re going to do. Also, make sure you run by the same rules you expect all members of the organization to observe. Authenticity builds trust—you don’t have to be the “Shell Answer Man.” You may not know the answer, so don’t try to finesse your way through.

4. Communicate your plans—make your thinking visible. Members of your organization need to know what is happening, why, when, how, and who is affected. Even though the news may not be what people want to hear, they value candor.

Your natural instincts may be to slow down and be cautious given the gravity of the circumstances, but the counterintuitive answer is right. Step on the gas. Get out in front. Your organization needs skillful leadership today—“for such a time as this.”

Tim Irwin, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and leading authority on leadership development, organizational effectiveness, and executive selection.

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