Everyday Leaders – Leading in Tough Times – First in a series


Gosh, we had some great calls to the Everyday Leadership Show on Saturday.*  The callers elicited wonderful thoughts and advice from my regular guests, Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley.**  The economic downturn and hovering uncertainty formed the unmistakable backdrop for the calls.  Groups and individuals act quite differently when the context changes:

* When storm clouds arise, when the barometric pressure increases quickly;
* When the team is losing, when the inning is late;
* When ticket sales or charitable contributions drop off markedly;
* When foreclosures increase or sales plummet.

Under such over-arching pressures, people can act very strangely.  In the next few RFLs I’ll offer some thoughts on those changing behaviors and the resulting demands on leaders – whether you’re leading with authority or from among the crowd.

Lesson One:  read the signs.  So often we assume that weird individual behavior is weird individual behavior.  But so often weird behavior – like the skittish reaction of the deer or bird – tells us more about external conditions than about that particular animal.  Some people are simply more sensitive, and/or are more wildly expressive.  They are like pressure-meters in their systems.  So, an adolescent on a behavioral wild streak almost always points to something going on in the family system and/or the peer system, and not just to their personal psyche.  An employee who freaks out, stomps out, quits, betrays a confidence, or suddenly withdraws, may tell us much about the system(s), if we look there.  Likewise, we would do well to at least wonder whether the unusually hostile behavior of a somewhat nutty boss has been provoked by changes or stresses in the system(s) s/he belongs to: family or peers at work or major pressures in the organization.

Perhaps this sounds obvious.  But it runs counter to thousands of years of our mental programming, our automatic responses.  We look – for good reason – at behavior as the product of individual freedom and choice.  Our legal and moral and child-rearing systems are built upon this fundamental truth.  It’s only a partial truth.  So, perhaps look this week at the people who seem to be acting nutty, acting out, acting difficult, and take a detached approach.  Wonder about the systems and stresses that may “belong” more to those conditions than to the individual’s idiosyncrasies.  Where might this take you – first, simply in insight, and then beyond that to some different leadership responses?  As always I look forward to your thoughtful blog responses.

I’ll offer some more thoughts about leading groups under pressure in the coming weeks.  Detaching and wondering and critically thinking are keys for you to

Lead with your best self,


*  You can hear the Everyday Leadership Show (experts in the first hour, and advice in the second to help you “make work work”) on Saturday mornings from 7-9 AM.  You can hear it online live at http://www.wjimam.com or subscribe to podcasts through iTunes, at the linked url

** Co-authors of the best-selling book Working With You is Killing Me.

  • I know what you meant, but rising barometric pressure usually brings clear skies. Falling pressure brings bad weather.

  • When you talk about people acting out, it reminds me of a favorite saying: Be kinder than you have to be; everyone is facing their own challenge.

    • Donna
      Your saying sums it up and could have been my mantra in so many situations. Thanks for passing it on.

  • This is a great theme and I look forward to more RFL’s in this series.

    One topic that I would find a great deal of value in being addressed is how leaders get others to be more open to new ideas and approaches in difficult, stressful times. When there is a crisis, the stakes are obviously very high, and the natural tendency is retrench to the principles, behaviors, and actions that resulted in success in the past. The problem is that the larger system has probably changed, so the same levers do not work to the same extent. The net result is that we shrink down to the world we’ve known, not open up to the new possibilities. It is in the new ideas and possibilities where solutions exist, but we cannot access them because its way too scary when the stakes are so high.

    How do we open up to new solutions and become more willing to experiment? How do we listen more to opposing views and become “followers” if need be? How do we do this when the potential downside can be so severe? I sincerely appreciate others thoughts on this delimma.

    • Shawn:
      I think you ask a great question.Leading in times of stress is a big challenge. I think that three things have to happen to allow for innovative approaches to solving changes in times of upheaval:

      First, the leader has to asknowledge the changes that everyone is facing — whether it’s new management, recessionary times, or a fierce competitor. a good leader acknowledges what everyone is feeling and admits that the team has a big job ahead — taming the 500 pund change gorilla in the room.

      Second, a good leader reassures all members of the team that, if they work together, they can tackle this challenge.

      Third, a good leader creates a safe environment for the team to brainstorm fresh approaches to solving old problems. It may be an off-site meeting or retreat or informal gatherings at a coffee shop. the point is that in order to look at old problems with a fresh perspective, you need time and safety.

      Those are some thoughts on your topic.

      • Catherine,

        We could all post your 3 points above our desks (or our teenage kids’ bedroom doors!) as guides for




  • Interesting column today. In reading the comments sections over the past few weeks since I started reading this blog, I find it quite interesting. At least three people… Dave, Rick, Bill and a few others, cited concerns regarding the areas you discussed. They talked in intelligent sense about the economy, their own manufacturing business, the downturn we are all experiencing and tried to engage to create action instead of the same old same old. These behaviors could be what was described above as “acting out” or “acting strangely” but perhaps they were simply crying to the “parent” or “boss” (in this case the government) because it isn’t working and their system is being hurt. It is interesting that in those cases the person who would be deemed “the boss” or “the parent” — ie. the runner of the blog with significant governmental influence — called them out as whiners and painted a rosy picture that all will improve, pretty much dismissing the concerns. Interesting thought to ponder when reading this week’s RFL.

    • Jack,

      In this I heartily agree with you: the systems really are broken. A complicated economy, whose health was based on assumptions about the continuation of auto manufacturing growth and dominance, was go through radical readjustment. This throws open new considerations for all of us leading – with and without authority. Unions need to change, schools need to changes, businesses, workers, you name it!

      I am curious that you suggest I “called them out as whiners and painted a rosy picture that all will improve, pretty much dismissing the concerns.” Maybe I’m totally myopic, but when I spent a lot of time on the blog and in offline dialogue with those folks, I was trying to engage them honestly and wholeheartedly. I was totally impressed how Rick met me in the middle, and we both tried to learn from it. Did you read his responses, too?

      From a systemic view I have suggested today that those crying out, reflect systemic issues. And you rightly see that. “Dave” for instance sounds like a very hard-working manufacturer who’s trying to make a go of it. I don’t think he’s whining. I think he’s afraid and angry. Every day he’s trying to make his business work, and he worries that government is out of touch. I do think the choices government faces are tough, just like his: do you invest in schools or do you cut business taxes? There are no simple answers here. I don’t fault Dave or anyone for being angry, and I don’t claim I have the answers, I’m just trying to elevate the engagement beyond frustration and anger.

      Again, it comes back to systemic issues: how does Dave affect his workers, his vendors, his designers, his salespeople to compete in a tough world. How does the governor move a divided legislature? How do we get all of us to open our eyes to a changed world? Dave’s people look to him, as Michigan citizens look to Jen, but in the end neither holds a magic wand. Their ultimate job is to help align, inspire, and engage us to change.

      We would all love to have “parents” as you put it take away our problems and eliminate the systemic issues. My point to them and to you is that we should not be naive about what it takes to make that happen. The last thing I’m saying is that this is a “rosy picture,” Jack. It takes a lot of work, a lot of effort – some luck would be nice too — to get us where we need to get.


      • Dan & Jack:

        It is frustrating being in an industry always seemingly on the brink and not “seeing” the state leaders act with the same kind of urgency that I have. One way to send yourself into an early grave is to hold yourself accountable for the things you can’t change. My dad always told me that things are’nt as bad as they seem, however, I wonder what he would say about the situation Michigan is in today.

        I try to put myself in the shoes of our leaders and I have a hard time beleiving that they are as concerned about their future as I am of my company and its employees. They seem to be insulated from the full impact of the enemic Michigan economy. Words and platitudes are great for heady discussions but we need to get to the place where real solutions produce results.

        As for my daily attitude… I conduct myself in a cheerful manner with my employees primarily because if they lose this job they will be way worse off than me. I encourage independance in their decision making and that to me breeds an large amount of creativity and ingenuity. The kind of ingenuity I hope I soon see from our leaders in Lansing …

        • Dave,
          Didn’t mean to suggest that you don’t manage your emotions in the workplace to generate results.
          As for being in touch with the “full impact,” I can only say that my wife feels it 24/7; that expression is, apart from things like breathing, a metaphor, but it’s darned near close to literal for her.
          The questions are how to move that forward, how to gain consensus especially in stressful times.

          • Dan:

            Now is the time for compromise between the Govenor and the Republicans. Now is the time for action and putting our agenda’s aside so that companies invest in our state. The window of opportunity is only open for so long.

            Managed emotions… I did’nt take offense I just want to make it clear that what I say on this blog and how I present myself at work are different. No one here needs to know what keeps me up at night.

          • From the earlier comment: “A complicated economy, whose health was based on assumptions about the continuation of auto manufacturing growth and dominance.” Who made that assumption? Ever since Governor Blanchard (or Milliken), we’ve been hearing about the downsizing of the Big Three, the need to move to a more diverse economy and the more we move away from auto-dependence in this state, the better. In 30 years, I don’t think I’ve ever believed that the Michigan auto industry would rule the day like it did in the “good old days.” If this is an assumption that our leaders in Lansing were counting on (auto manufacturing growth and dominance), then I’m frankly worried we might be in worse shape than I first believed.

          • Ann,

            I appreciate your sense of “hold on here, buddy.” You are right that we should have seen long ago that things were different. But we’re talking about assumptions here – those tricky hidden things that we all have that get in our way.

            You ask: “Who made that assumption [that manufacturing jobs were here to stay]?” A good question. I’m always amused at how we (I include myself here) ask rhetorical questions of someone, and then answer them in a way totally NOT what the person (in this case me) was saying. Do YOU think that people – lots of them – haven’t been operating under assumptions that things weren’t changing, or if they were it somehow wasn’t going to affect them? They would dodge the bullet, make it to retirement, etc.

            Assumptions by definition are buried, Ann. The so-called intelligentsia have been talking about diversification since Blanchard or even Milliken, as you say. But the reality is the economy has bounced back from each of those downturns. Yes, market share declined, quality wasn’t as great, labor and legacy costs were increasing, but laborers kept their up north cottages and got good health care. And white collar workers continued to see stock options and A Plan vehicles. So, who wanted to believe that the world was really different? That’s a hard truth (ask McCain who got beat by Romney in part because he didn’t pander to Michiganians about manufacturing jobs coming back, or Barack who got whacked for talking about the big 3’s not embracing CAFE). People would prefer their illusions.

            Your leap to “our leaders in Lansing” having this assumption is not well placed. Jennifer has been talking consistently about the need for diversification since her first day in office. I assume that most the Rs on the other side of the aisle are also trying to get people to face up to changes. Again, it’s easy to scapegoat leaders – the so-called idiots in Lansing or DC – but generally they’re giving us as much tough medicine as they think we can swallow.

            Our job as citizen leaders is to educate each other, and increase our tolerance for some of the pain of transition, and increase the quality of our dialogue about where we’re going.

            You think?

  • Excellent insight. You state that your point might be “obvious”. During very stressful times, I don’t know that there is such thing as obvious. When the mind is flying and the stomach is stirring, often it’s difficult to recognize the need to detach and look beyond one’s natural inclination of reaction. Your thoughts remind me not to react to the employee or cutomer acting out, but to pause, breath deeply, detach from reaction, and be proactive in my response. First, seek to understand the situation in its entirety, and then respond effectively to the real cause of the important stakeholder’s behavior.

  • lets remember a human is not born programed to be a leader, so as they grow the environment their in plays a major role for their future.this is a learned thought process and the question is can this be unlearned?

    • Luigi,

      What do you think? Are you “unlearning?”

      That’s a very cool concept.

      How do we unlearn our sense of entitlement, protection, etc. – to more money than our parents made, an environment that will always be safe, good health we’ll always have, etc.?


      • I feel that if you detach from the materialistic desires, and strive for simplicity, and believe that there is much to be learned from living a life that embraces a certain amount/element of austerity, that this, along with humility, will allow you to see clearer into your own future, and find contentment in areas that offer more than what a big house, fancy car, high dollar suits, etc. can trap you with. A saying I’m fond of is, do you own your possessions (things) or do they own you? I practic what I preach here; my farm is paid for outright (not inherited), my old Ford truck has never had a payment schedule, the motorcycle offers a relief at the gas pump. My goals are not inspired by things, but rather by idealisms. Because I am a PRACTICING fiscal conservative, I am able to weather the economic storms, live sustainably off of my land, if need be (I already heat with wood that I procure from the woodlands, eat blackberries daily when they are ripe…soon btw!!….etc. So, for me, dropping out to a varied degree, was the most viable, and worthwhile endeavor. It didn’t come overnight…..it took insight into the uncertain future, an understanding of the downturn that was GHB’s legacy, followed by catastrophic leadership by GWB. I’d have to say, however, that I empathise with those that are hard working, yet are in a quandry about their uncertain economic future. I think that the country is giving too much in the way of handouts to the lazy and uninspired…..to the detriment of all of society in the USA. Welfare should be changed to work-fare.

      • you can’t unlearn something that was never learned,or maybe all leaders came from the same environment.the better the living conditions the easer to become a leader.

  • Dan:
    Thanks for the topic- an important reminder to make no assumptions. Our tendency as humans, and particularly when there is no explanation for things (whether circumstances or behavior) is to make assumptions in order to make ‘sense’ of things. Making assumptions is akin to jumping to conclusions- and both acts cut us off from the natural stream of possibililty. If we were to go about our daily lives not making assumptions about anything, think about how free we would be! Free from making these stories up, free from holding others to the stories we make up, open to so many possibilites.

    • Linda,

      Nice job of pointing out that one way to deal with stress and change is to see opportunity in it.

      It points to the importance of building up our children’s abilitiy to manage with uncertainty and change.


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