Leaders: Taking backward look ahead (Guest commentary)

Successful leaders will be truthful, share in the pain and coach employees

The world economy is in tatters, consumer confidence is in the dumps, bankruptcies are rampant, massive layoffs are imminent and the entire financial sector is in chaos. For most of the working population, this is the worst recession they’ve experienced.

Though 2009 promises to be an incredibly difficult year for most companies, it’s also an incredible opportunity for leaders to step forward. So, get ready. The unremitting leadership challenges of 2009 will test you as you have never been tested before. Will you triumph or be found wanting? Let’s look at this daunting question from an unusual vantage point — let’s take a backward look ahead.

In the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character is taken into the future by a novice angel named Clarence to see a dismal version of the future without him. Allow me to be your angel for a moment and take you to Jan. 1, 2010. Unlike Clarence, however, I am going to show you a future with you at your very best as a leader.

My hope is you will be able to look back on 2009 and say the following:

I did not lie: Many times I was sorely tempted as I faced the “slings and arrows” that accompany leadership in difficult times, but I didn’t yield. I decided I would tell the unvarnished truth to everyone associated with my organization and my business — my staff, my colleagues, my boss, my customers. No more spinning, half-truths and managing the news. It wasn’t easy, what with all the job losses, compensation reductions, career changes, sales declines, reorganizations and business losses. But I decided people are not fragile — and they did not break when I told them the truth.

I was first to take the hit: 2009 was a year of sacrifice for everyone in my organization and I made sure no one sacrificed more than I did. I worked harder and longer than anyone else in the organization. I took more risks, deeper pay cuts, more responsibility and less credit. Whenever hardship came our way, I was first in line.

I was a coach: Surprisingly, many people in our organization now say 2009 was the best year of their career. They felt special all year, they were challenged and they were affirmed. I held them accountable for mission-critical outcomes that stretched their performance far beyond anything they had ever done before. We won’t be doing performance appraisals for 2009. There was no need, everyone was an “A.”

I shared the pain: I resisted the urge to turn to autocracy. The allure of short-term gains was powerful, but collaboration, participation and involvement defined our year. We suffered together, toiled together and triumphed together. Some call it teamwork but we call it community. We truly worked for each other. The burdens would have been too heavy to bear alone.

I crafted a big, new story: Well, it was really more our big story. The organization galvanized around our “Survive and Thrive in 2009” plan. Everyone was involved. Everyone had a starring role. It became a cause, a movement. Looking back, the business environment was far worse than we had imagined, but it was surprisingly rich with undiscovered opportunities. It took the whole organization to find them, but find them we did. We survived and thrived.

Gregg Thompson is the Vancouver-based president of Bluepoint Leadership Development and author of Unleashed! and The Leadership Experience. He can be reached at [email protected].

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