Leading in Tough TimesGiven the rocky economic climate of the last several years, most executives are no strangers to managing in tough times. Keeping up morale amid workforce reductions can test even the most stalwart leader. Yet, these challenges call for strong leadership. CEOs and other executives set the tone to weather the inevitable storms of the business cycle, managing the concerns and expectations of both employees and the board, as well as investors.

Communication is key during turbulent seasons, according to a McKinsey survey. Yet communication and transparency can fall through the cracks in the midst of reacting to a crisis. “Communicate, and communicate some more,” was one CEO’s advice. Honesty with employees “builds respect, trust, and solidarity.” This is turn can create a more pleasant work environment, boosting morale and retaining employees.

In the process of communicating with board members and employees, the craft of storytelling may be one way to assuage fears. We have talked about storytelling in business before, and here is a good application of the strategy. A challenging episode can be viewed as a conflict that the protagonist, the company, must overcome in order to grow and succeed. After all, every good story brings the protagonist to a low point. What keeps people engaged is how that company responds to the crisis and emerge triumphant.

While providing a narrative and navigating the firm through an unsettled period, goal setting may ease tensions and allay fears. With something to work for and look forward to, we can place emphasis on the here and now as opposed to what went wrong. While it is important to recognize mistakes or to review a crisis, it is also important to move ahead and look towards what is next.

Learning to embrace ambiguity inherent in uncertain times is important. Making major decisions when you cannot predict what’s coming next may produce anxiety. Yet, that willingness to operate in a gray area may determine success – and it is a characteristic increasingly sought after in executive placement. From the Wall Street Journal:

“At a turbulent time in business, more U.S. companies pick and promote executives who thrive amid ambiguity, coaches and recruiters say. These leaders don’t flinch at uncertainty, surprises, conflicting directions, multiple demands—or knotty problems with no clear answers.”

As in life, the only constant in business is change. The challenge is to recognize both the impermanence of the good times and the bad times. Embracing the bigger picture may give more perspective – and blunt negative emotions – on what is a temporary situation.

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