Uncertainty and the Role of the Leader
I had coffee with my friend, Paul the other day. Dave is a successful business lawyer in town who was speaking of some of his clients when he said, “There are CEOs in Denver who had the chance to sell their companies a few years ago, and didn’t because it was an exhilarating ride at the time. Now, they are faced with maybe 5 years of drudgery trying to bring their companies back to the value they had hoped to reap before they left the business. They look angry and resentful …I call it the “leg-tied-to-the-desk” attitude. They aren’t doing their companies any favors by staying—at least with this attitude. There are a lot of them around right now.” 
The clean-up from an economic downturn has created a some resentment and an unhappy work place. I liked Paul’s leg-tied-to-the-desk metaphor—and continue to describe it as a really preoccupied frustration.   One executive told me he was as unhappy as he has ever been in business. There is one major fall-out from an unhappy CEO—people leave as soon as the tide turns. It happens again and again. You may not want to face the prospect of re-building your business, as well as doing it with people you don’t know very well. 
Of course there’s a strong need in these companies to reassess where they are and avoid the temptation of “going back”. What’s needed now—more than ever—is a company renewal to a new order. These are the times to look for hope, inspiration and creativity. You do much more damage by trying to “muscle” your company back to even. Now, more than ever, getting guidance around the anger and resentment is something I would recommend. Finding new ways to do what you once did well, is a requirement.   One thing is clear—trying to recreate business the way it was two or three years ago is not working in most companies.
 Start, too, with a re-look at the research about leadership and uncertainty. I am providing it here as a summary from the last two quarters. There is much to consider if you want to recreate your work processes, structure or even leadership team.   If you would like some help, please give me a call and we can discuss it.
1.      A Good Leader…..Communicates High Performance Expectations and Standards
The room became very quiet. I was observing a group of managers who were studying to be the next generation of executives in their company. One of them in this group of five would be the next President of the Company, and all of them were here because they were outstanding managers. The problem they were considering was new to them, and they had no guidelines with which to follow. They were feeling their way along—talking to each other, but unsure of the “right” answer. The dilemma they were charged with is one you might think about the managers in your company answering. 
“Several of your clients have moved their business to one of your competitors—a company which charges a bit less for a similar service, but is known to cut corners on delivery and subsequent support services. The competitor can charge less because their staff is young and unaware of salary comparisons, and other staffing quality issues. As a company leader you have to respond to the defections because more are on the way.” There was more information and particulars…
These five emerging leaders—as successful managers know how to rally a team around a service issue. They can pick out an incorrect ratio on a spreadsheet; do lease vs. buy analysis; know within pennies where they are in their budget projections. They know how to wring a profit out of any project, but they don’t know how to preserve a company standard. They have not thought of the long term leadership consequences of compromising a value, high performance or corporate standards within the context of work processes. As they continued to cast about the particulars of this dilemma, I found myself mulling over the clients I have worked with over the years. I cannot think of one company President who wouldn’t know the “right” answer immediately, and with a decisiveness that comes from making those choices on a daily basis.
 We are nothing unless we stand for something. This is a no-brainer for a good leader. Communicates high performance expectations and standards is a behavior identified by Wharton School professor, Robert J. House in his landmark 1996 study of CEOs and their impact on Profitability during times of uncertainty. What’s notable about the study is the behavior does not impact the profitability of a company during times of certainty, but rather during uncertain times.   Or, in other words, it’s one of the outstanding behaviors that make a difference on the profitability of a company when times are rough. 
 How are your managers dealing with the values and standards in your Company?  
2.      A Good Leader ….. Shows Strong Confidence in Self and Others
Recently, I had an unusual opportunity to attend a motivational seminar by a speaker whose delivery and message is directly from the writing and speaking of Abraham Lincoln. His delivery is especially dramatic in that he is in full costume as the 16th president of the United States. It was a magical few hours of listening to the wisdom of Lincoln from a man who looked like the historical pictures. Within the presentation there were two points that were important to Lincoln and still have applicability today—particularly in these times of uncertainty. 
Lincoln maintained his success was in part accomplished by his ability to “get along with people who are different than I am.” Of course, during his time in office he did not have the luxury of the civil service system that modern presidents have—it was the spoils system and in most cases he needed to strategize with people with whom he did not agree. He had to set federal policy with a pack of men who were out for their own good, and not necessarily the country. What were the skills he relied on most:
               1. Listen—listen so closely to what others have to say that you learn something from it; and
              2. Avoid personal quarrels—learn to disagree without being disagreeable. 
I cannot think of two better principles to pass on to company leaders than these. Lincoln had no blueprint to help him during the war. The country had never had a civil war, and he was making decisions along the way—trying to do the right thing. We remember wartime prime ministers and presidents better than peacetime leaders, and the same is true for company executives. Organizational leadership matters most during a period of stress and uncertainty. It is in the careful behaviors of a leader that make a difference. Most companies which have leaders that I respect, have strong commitment to these two characteristics described by Lincoln.
Having confidence in themselves and others was a behavior identified by Wharton School professor, Robert J. House in his landmark 1996 study of CEOs and their impact on profitability. This behavior is consistent with Lincoln’s advice to “get along with others who are different than you are.”   Have confidence that you are speaking and working with people who have relevant things to say—just from their viewpoint! If you listen carefully, you might learn something.
3.      Visionary
Visionary is one of the leadership characteristics needed in times of stress and uncertainty identified by Wharton School professor, Robert J. House in his study of CEOs and their impact on Profitability. Maybe that’s a no-brainer to you, but how do you make it work in your company? Just how do you take the company vision and make it a direct link to profitability in times of uncertainty? 
The answer is in the articulation of the vision. If the company leaders use the vision as the one thing that is certain in the future, and consistently conveys that message; then it becomes the flag post for others. If you, as the leader, speak and act as if the company vision is a true prediction of the company’s future, then your work associates will believe it. 
Part of the articulation of your company’s vision that’s important to remember is the frame that’s necessary—which accounts for risk and uncertainty. Acknowledge that times are scary and that changes have to be made to protect the company and the safety of all who are there. However, there is nothing that will impact the desire of all associates to accomplish the goals. With that desire comes the results that were determined earlier as a part of the vision. 
That’s exactly how CEOs are using their visionary characteristic as a positive influence on profitability during uncertain times.