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How to 'Lead in Uncertain Times'
In an uncertain world, strong leadership is needed more than ever, because in an environment where nothing seems authentic, employees look up to the leader for direction and stability. They need constant reaffirmation that their company and they are on the right track.
Pawan Chabra | Issue Date - 03/02/2012

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We live and operate in a highly complex and fast-changing world that is guided by globalisation. Between 1970 and 2007 the number of transnational companies grew from about 7,000 to 79,000 with close to a million subsidiaries in various countries. Economically, the might of the emerging markets can be felt around the globe. Today’s brave new world creates more opportunity for everyone, even if it is not flat as Friedman suggested in one of his books.

Technology developments happen at break-neck speed. What is a breakthrough idea today is an outdated one tomorrow as are companies that don't adapt fast enough. Customers are more complex than ever. Constantly connected, they are keenly aware of the latest trends no matter where they live. Deregulation and fast moving capital markets create not only new opportunities but also new challenges, as the latest financial crisis has demonstrated.

As a consequence, people will not take leaders and their words for granted. Leaders, and in particular their behaviour, are scrutinized in detail. Employees will be convinced of a leader's integrity and trustworthiness only if he or she really walks the talk. Companies that chart the uncertain waters of modern day competition greatly benefit from managers with 'cool heads, warm hearts, and working hands', as Professor Martin Hilb from the University of St. Gallen puts it. While this concept is not new, it clearly resonated with a number of leaders during the last crisis as well as with their employees.

'Cool heads' are necessary to be able to glean the essential points from the daily information overload, analyze the complexity around you, and then come to a decision. A prime example of a cool-head is Jack Welch from GE who moulded the company's culture around very clearly spelt out principles and objectives. Successful leaders like Welch build a team of excellent people who help in this job.

'Warm hearts' are crucial to prevent employees becoming disenfranchised with you and your company. You need to communicate with and be present for your employees, be it in the office, on the shop floor, or in the field when you visit customers. Your teams want to connect with you since as the CEO or the leader of your business unit you are the face of their combined efforts. A case in point is the admiration of blue-collar workers that Ratan Tata, Chairman of Tata Group, experiences each time when he visits one of his Tata Motors plants. These visits and his accessibility to everybody on the shop floor are very powerful tools of motivation and generate strong commitment among employees.

Last, but not least, 'Working Hands' are a sign of a good leader during these exciting times. As a leader you are constantly under scrutiny and people try to understand whether your actions match your words, whether the same rules apply to all or whether there are exceptions for the privileged few. Take the owner of a large German SME as an example. During the last downturn, she stopped using her private plane and drove a little hatchback herself to work. A simple and strong message that cost reductions affected everybody from top to bottom.

In an uncertain world, people look more than ever for direction. As a consequence, today's leaders not only have to deal with a very fast moving and challenging external environment. They also need to accept the fact that they are role models for the organisation and are given a unique opportunity to shape a company's culture. While some managers have failed and not lived up to their responsibility, many 'cool heads, warm hearts, and working hands' managers work tirelessly day-after-day to create value with and for their employees and organisations.

Personally, there is little I enjoy more than leading and working with a motivated team towards a common goal. Whether it is in the midst of substantial growth of 80% or in a severe crisis where everybody has to pull together to optimize cash flows, the opportunities to leverage everybody's strength to find creative, actionable solutions are endless. The pride of being part of an organisation that pulls in the same direction, from board to blue-collar worker, and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done are priceless. Last, but definitively not least, you can have a lot of fun as long as you are prepared to take yourself not too seriously and as long as you always remember that the task at hand is much more important than the person in charge of delivering it.


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