5 Reasons to Celebrate the Tough Times

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Photo Credit: Rich McBride

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” ~Louisa May Alcott

I was talking to a friend the other day and we were reminiscing about a business we worked at that went through a rough period. Market demand had dropped, orders were down, margins were being squeezed, and we had a new business system that limited our view of the situation. He mentioned something that really struck me. He said, “I’m glad we went through that time because it made me a much better leader.”

Leading during difficult times takes everything you have, but the truth is, you will be better off because of that experience. In a great article called 9 Things Great Leaders Do in Difficult Times, Bill Murphy Jr. says, “Great leadership seems easy when things are good and everybody’s happy. When times grow tough, however, a leader’s true colors are revealed.”

Murphy suggests that in difficult times, great leaders:

  1. Control their fears
  2. Focus on the mission
  3. Put the mission ahead of themselves
  4. Rely on their training and preparation
  5. Are tough, but human
  6. Encourage their people
  7. Communicate effectively
  8. Use their resources wisely
  9. Imitate the leaders who inspire them

Having led both military and business organizations through some pretty difficult periods, I would agree with Murphy’s thoughts on this subject. I also think there is another side to tough times that he did not consider. As my friend said to me, tough times make you a better leader. Let me suggest five reasons why:

Tough times require you to operate at your highest level. When the seas are calm and the weather is nice, you don’t have to be on the top of your game. But tough times require an intense, 24/7 focus on the problem. As a leader, everyone in the organization is watching you and depending on you to make the right decisions to lead them out of the situation. It requires focus, determination, decisiveness, courage, intensity, and perseverance. It will take your absolute best.

You learn a lot about yourself during tough times. The challenge of leading during difficult times is learning to deal with those voices of self-doubt, fear, and worry while your team is depending on you for confidence and strength. Tough times are the ultimate test of a leader’s character and resolve. There is nothing that will boost confidence more than facing the toughest challenge in your career and coming out on top.

You build strong bonds with your team during tough times. When you stand shoulder to shoulder with your team through a crisis, you build a bond that can last a lifetime. When a leader and their team step up and work together through a tough situation, it builds a powerful new level of trust and respect. The overall capability of the organization is forever enhanced through this experience.

Tough times give you a new perspective. Your perspective forever changes from having withstood a difficult period. You have a much greater appreciation for when times are good. You also are less likely to let people, politics, and minor issues get you down. Tough times help build your maturity as a leader.

Tough times become an anchor point for the rest of your career. Great leaders can almost always point to a time in their career when they became great. In most cases, it was leading an organization through a tough situation and coming out on top. The most difficult situation you face may actually be the defining moment in your career.

Most of us don’t want to go through difficult times. It’s human nature to want things to be easy. The problem is that when things are easy and you aren’t challenged, you don’t grow. Confidence and maturity as a leader come from dealing with your self-doubt and fears while overcoming adversity. Tough times require your best, you learn what you are capable of, you learn what your team is capable of, you build strong bonds, you gain a new perspective, and your performance will define your career. So why not celebrate the tough times? It may be the best thing that ever happened to you.

So what do you think? Can you grow as a leader without experiencing difficult times? Does your learning accelerate when facing a crisis? Should we seek out leaders that have proven themselves in tough trials? Are there other ways our perspective changes by enduring tough times?

The Power of your Presence

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Have you ever had one of those bosses who was never around? They worked in an office with the door closed, they never came to your work area or location, they spent all their time in meetings, or maybe didn’t even know your name? As an employee, it can be incredibly discouraging to have a disengaged boss.

The problem is that most leaders don’t understand the power of their presence. This is probably why, according to the State of the American Workplace report by Gallup, 70% of employees are disengaged with their company.

In an earlier article, called 10 Simple Ways to Become an Extraordinary Leader in 2015, I described 10 activities to become a better leader in the new year. Number one on that list was being present. Being present is exactly what it means. Employees need to see you and you need to see them.

So why is it important that employees interact with their boss on a regular basis? Let me suggest five simple reasons, especially in this time of decentralized offices and remote locations, why you need to be present as a leader.

You ensure proper communication. Robert Whipple has a great new article out called Face to Face that addresses this very issue. He refers to the old UCLA study that showed that only 7% of what is understood is from words, the rest comes from facial expressions and the tone of your voice. He suggests in a time of decentralized offices, an over-reliance on texts and e-mails will cause your communications to suffer. You must see your employees face to face to ensure your message is understood.

You see what is really going on. I wrote about this in an articled called 5 Lessons from the Shop Floor. The point of that article is that, as a leader, you need to get out of your office and go to where the value-added work is being done. Too many times, leaders make decisions based on what they think is going on. Unless you spend time with your employees, there will be a significant gap between reality and your assumptions on reality.

You learn new things. There is a rich and useful world of “tribal knowledge” to be discovered. The collective wisdom of your employees is incredible but you need to be present to learn about it. Your employees know what works and what doesn’t. They know where the real problems and opportunities are. Spending time with employees gives you a new perspective and can boost your improvement activities.

They see you as approachable. Every boss likes to say they are approachable but what do your actions tell your employees? Do you work with your office door shut? Do you walk through the office looking down at the floor? Demonstrate you are approachable by getting out of your office with the purpose of saying good morning to your employees. If you have remote employees, spend a week working at their location so they see you. The more approachable you appear, the more likely they will open up and talk to you.

They see you as part of the team. Too often, leaders think they are more important than their employees. The truth is that more value-added activity is occurring with your employees than you. You may be the coach, but they are on the field making it happen every day. By being present and showing respect to your employees, they see you as an important part of the team not just a name on the bottom of an e-mail.

They see you as the company. Whether you like it or not, your employees see you as the company. If you are distant and disengaged as a leader, how do you expect they will act towards the company? The truth is that frontline leaders trump CEOs when it comes to employee engagement. In a recent HBR survey, 73% of respondents said that frontline managers were vitally important to achieving a high level of employee engagement. If you want engaged employees, you need to be an engaged leader.

The fact that 70% of employees in the U.S. are disengaged at work tells me that, as leaders, we still have a lot of work to do to improve our leadership skills. One of the most important skills is simply being present. Too often, leaders are disconnected and disengaged. Being present ensures you are communicating properly, that you face reality and see what your employees see, that you learn more about what is really going on, that you become more approachable, that you are seen as part of the team, and that you foster an environment of employee engagement. Simply getting out of your office and spending time with your employees will make you a better leader.

So what do you think? Can the power of your presence change the level of employee engagement? Do you think we are too busy as leaders to spend time with our employees? Are there other ways to communicate with employees to increase engagement? Can webinars, video conferencing, and the use of the company intranet take the place of being present? Let me know what you think!