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The Effective Leader in Difficult Times 

This economic downturn has been dramatic and quick and the emotional effects on people have been substantial. Not only have employees suddenly left their organisations, but for those remaining, their roles have often changed -they may need to create and achieve new strategies, often managing with fewer people and on reduced budgets. The personal wellbeing of our leaders is a priority at this time when we are expecting so much of them.

An example of such pressures on leaders is that of a newly appointed senior director in a global pharmaceutical company: suddenly he is faced with bigger responsibilities, implementing a new strategy, with a slimmer team and tight resources. Travel cuts have shut him off from his new US team, who are responding by showing every sign of disengagement –they are not totally aligned, they have become less collaborative and with low energy.

This experience is not untypical - the very real effects of the recession are that people tend to be less open in a fearful and uncertain atmosphere, communication dries up as people close down and become more wary as they retreat into themselves. Silo mentality increases and rumours and assumptions are made which generate further any feelings of mistrust. Leaders are feeling pressured into operating in ways which are uncomfortable for them. For example, I’m working with a leader who is usually very consultative in her leadership style; however because of the sensitive nature of the information she currently has to handle, she cannot relate to her team in the normal way and she finds her stress levels have shot up.

Another example is a senior executive of a global entertainments business that has undergone a major reorganisation and will imminently be losing many leaders. He has seen a once vibrant organisation go unnervingly quiet and unresponsive. He personally feels sad to lose good friends and colleagues, yet he is having to face a hard task without them. The danger is that this “pressure cooker” emotional atmosphere goes unacknowledged and ignored.

How do organisations support their leaders to be the best that they need them to be in these most turbulent times? Primarily by encouraging leaders to stay connected with what they are feeling and providing a supportive environment for this to be possible. So, whilst this alone is not a panacea, recognising these emotions and acknowledging them is a start in enabling people to begin once again to function effectively. I have found the transition curve is a good reference for the ups and downs of emotions and performance.

Leaders do damage to themselves and others by bottling emotions up. They need to find others to talk things through: colleagues or friends and family are a possible resource. The caveat here is that if they are close to the individual that individual will carry biases; some conscious and some unconscious. An internal coach or mentor is a good resource; they know the organisation and can be more objective and give some good insights and help get perspective. The advantage of an external coach is that they are out of the organisational system and therefore they are clean of emotional entanglements. They can create a safe environment for individuals to explore their situations and issues, not only at a surface level but also discuss their private concerns and feelings, at a personallevel, which could be a start in accessing all their potential resources. Enabling leaders to make sense of what might be going on for them helps them unlock their thinking, thus enabling clearer decision making as well as building up their resilience and confidence. Important, too, is maintaining contacts with your internal network: people benefit a lot from staying connected with others, communicating, sharing. In particular, it reduces the feeling of isolation.

We are currently working with a professional services firm who have made the very positive decision to continue their Leadership Development programme, I believe for two main reasons. Firstly, there is a coaching element as part of the programme and they recognise the importance of this sort of support for their leaders and secondly they are building up alumni from the programmes to ensure that when leaders go back into the business they can continue this connection as a valuable resource and continued support.

At times of such immense pressure, leaders may neglect to keep themselves fit and healthy. This is a mistake, as there is a strong link between improved mental attitude and resilience and keeping well physically (walking, running, gym, yoga, martial arts......), and eating well. So this is the other key element to personal wellbeing.

Whilst it may not seem like it at the moment, this time of quite exceptional upheaval offers the opportunity to evaluate and understand what is truly important to you, what needs to change and the chance to realign ourselves, mobilising the necessary resources to achieve a successful, sustainable new way of being in business. We have a responsibility to support business leaders and ourselves in the way we’ve discussed. It is a very necessary strategy to ensure organisations are in the best possible shape for growth when this current economic climate eases.

For more details on The Praxis Centre's personal development programmes and our coaching programme, please call Mary Mills, Business Director of The Praxis Centre on +44 (0) 1234 754502 or e-mail  

Vivian Vella is a tutor at The Praxis Centre


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