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Business leaders have long debated the benefits of focus and opportunism when it comes to finding new markets and boosting efficiency and profitability. Ideally, we have learned to be nimble enough to catch a new business wave and simultaneously clear-eyed enough to employ business practices that generate profit.
What often happens is that waves of general optimism or pessimism skew our sense of possibility and cloud our vision one way or another. Unbridled enthusiasm can lead to overplayed hands, heated forecasts, and squandered resources chasing fading rainbows.
Conversely, gloomy news of one sort or another – disease, freak accidents like giant moored cargo ships, or shortages of coveted supplies like plastics or microchips – can cause a pullback in investments of all kinds. A wait-and-see attitude too often throws a cloak over opportunity.
We are living through a period that no one saw coming and few were prepared to handle. As in all crises, some have done exceptionally well while others barely held on or collapsed. I have been privileged to work with a group of CEOs from a variety of industries, from consumer goods to manufacturing to technology to banking. The pressures on each of their companies bore similarities at times and departed sharply at others.
Two assets were of prime importance: focus and resilience.
Focus, in terms of paying close heed to the things that impacted employees, company values, supply chain challenges and company earnings. These words are easy to capture; the day-to-day decision making around what to pay attention to and what to be aware of but not direct energy toward is one of management’s greatest demands. Trust hinges on these judgments and every individual within an organization views them through a very personal, and at times painful, lens.
The same is true for any leadership team. COVID-19 has been a helter-skelter scourge, impacting individuals and families in profoundly different ways at unpredictable moments. Where company leaders were expected to set policy for this heretofore unprecedented invasion, they, too, were suffering its effects – some early on; some not until quite recently. Personal experience tended to shape attitudes as we awaited direction from health officials. Trust was rare. Judgment, though we tried hard to avoid it, was inevitable.
And so, resilience became the second asset of critical value. Leaders who could take in a multitude of sometimes-conflicting information, decide how to share it with people who rely on them for guidance, and issue policy decisions (subject to change) became the go-to people in their companies.
It is worth pausing here to note that these leaders felt the same pressures as everyone else. They had every reason to punt decisions, stay flexible (i.e., not make decisions), or change their minds on a dime – or a new health directive. As they and their families felt the effects of the disease, they were challenged to choose a path despite enormous personal uncertainty.
The most effective leaders over the past year in my experience were those who allowed for debate, expression of concern and fear, who shared their own uncertainties in measured quantities, and who decided to step forward with guidance. They were humble, yet firm. Strong in a way that allowed discomfort, yet charted a course forward.
Their personalities differed tremendously. Some may have been considered authoritarian, save for the way they listened. Some may have been considered untrustworthy, save for the way their actions matched their words. Some may have been considered compromised, save for the way they looked their people in the eye, accepted uncomfortable emotion, and stayed true to their word.
It can be fashionable these days to judge people according to political ideology, economic circumstances, or other superficial notions of our time. Strong leaders understand these land mines and are prepared to stay true to the mission of their companies, find employees who are willing to work, learn, and excel in their fields, and have the courage to support human excellence in all its manifestations.
Your focus on growth, mastery and celebration of excellence has enormous influence on those around you. Your resilience in the face of challenge, showing grace to those who may be confused and agitated, while staying true to the development of your strengths, is an act of courage. Both are essential if we are to find our way out of a particularly dark and difficult time.
Leaders focus on what’s possible. They are willing to pay a short-term price to have a shot at a longer-term benefit that lasts far beyond their engagement. They look for individuals who are willing to develop the talent to focus on what matters and the resilience to endure flak along the way. They are looking for you.