“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:
- Control their fears
- Focus on the mission
- Put the mission ahead of themselves
- Rely on their training and preparation
- Are tough, but human
- Encourage their people
- Communicate effectively
- Use their resources wisely
- 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?