When the going gets tough, the tough get going!


When I was in university, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” was a favourite saying of one of my professors and this saying seems to me very pertinent in the current global crisis. I’ve read many articles and comments about what type of new leadership skills are required to face the challenges in a downturn and this search for a new leadership skill set surprises me.

To my mind, the question is not what new leadership skills are required (as if the leadership skills in the “pre-crisis world” are no longer adapted to dealing with the current situation). In my opinion, leaders simply must demonstrate the skills they are supposed to have had all along and front up to the challenges of defining and implementing the long term solutions.

Indeed, what good is leadership in sunny, blue sky weather? When times are good, you don’t really need leadership and you rely on good management to keep your ship on course. However, when the storm hits, you need leaders who can draw certainly upon all their experience but above all draw upon their character and courage to plot a course to safety.

Just as you can only test character under trying conditions, so you can only really test leadership in difficult circumstances and now is the moment for leaders to demonstrate their leadership skills by stepping up to the plate and showing their true mettle.

Indeed, throughout history, times of crisis have always been windows of opportunity for those who have had the vision and the character to see the difficult times as an opportunity to take responsibility, roll up their sleeves and get to work. For those looking to develop their leadership, perhaps the opportunity has never been greater to demonstrate that they have what it takes.

What’s more, if we accept that leaders are made, not born and if we accept that in the current crisis, what is required is leadership and not management, then we can accept that the current crisis will help us develop our leadership skills if we have the character and courage to rise to the occasion and build our leadership skills as we go. So paradoxically, rather than trying to identify who has the right leadership skill set to fit with the current crisis, we should be trying to identify who has the right character and determination to rise to the challenge and is tough enough to get going when the going is tough!

As Warren Buffet said “It’s only when the tide goes out that you realize who’s been swimming naked” and this axiom applies also to leadership. The current crisis doesn’t reveal a need for new leadership skills but simply reveals perhaps that some leaders didn’t really have the leadership skills we thought they had and now is the time for those with the real leadership skills to seize the day.

However, what the current crisis does reveal is that we need to rethink how we identify our leaders because as the saying goes, you can’t solve a problem with the logic that caused you the problem in the first place. What is most surprising with regard to the current crisis is how so many commentators fail to challenge the role poor leadership has played in generating the current chaos. Many commentators blame the system, the processes, the organisations, even point out specific individuals such as Jérôme Kerviel or Bernie Madoff but not many seem to focus on the poor leadership globally which allowed so many errors to accumulate in the system over time until the system finally collapsed.

This is indeed surprising.

Human Factors theory teaches us that accidents only happen when a certain number of factors in the process are aligned together, allowing the error chain to be connected. To prevent these factors from aligning, multiple safeguards have to be built in for each factor and the process must be monitored through effective leadership so that these safeguards are constantly tested and judged to be operational.

It would seem that these safeguards were gradually eroded over time for each factor due to poor leadership and this poor leadership led to systemic breakdown.

So I think it’s time to rethink our leadership model. Leadership is based on character which reveals itself in a willingness to confront difficulty and build the road as you go. Leadership is not an attribute or an inherent trait but an action. A leader is only as good as the next challenge he or she confronts.

As the current crisis shows, the bad news is that so many people in leadership positions viewed leadership as a title or position and as a career asset and not as an intention which can only express itself through action.

The good news is that leaders can be made or rather, leaders can make themselves if we fully understand that leadership is an intention that needs to be constantly expressed through action.

Click on the link below to hear Richard Branson’s view on Leadership in a crisis.

Richard Branson discusses leadership in a crisis

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