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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

When to call all hands on deck

Q: With the economy slowing again, scores of nominations awaiting confirmation and major issues such a climate change and immigration unresolved, Congress has left town for its traditional 6-week August recess. Is that smart leadership? At what point should leaders upset well-established routines to signal that business-as-usual is no longer acceptable?

Shortly after Fiat assumed control of Chrysler LLC in June 2009, CEO Sergio Marchionne announced that he would not occupy the executive office at Chrysler but rather move to a lower floor office that is close to the technical center. At the same time, Marchionne made it known that his team would be working long hours; Saturdays and Sundays would not be out of the norm until Chrysler was back on its feet.

Marchionne's example is one for leaders who want to demonstrate that business as usual is over. Senior executives are fond of issuing such dictums but they drive home their meaning when they put themselves on the line and share the hardships with the team.

My working definition of leadership is a simple one: leaders do what the organization needs them to do. In good times, leadership is a breeze. You are growing the business, hiring people and making money. In tough time, leadership is a hurricane. You are battling to stay upright, making decisions about letting people go, and managing ever-scarce resources.

The challenge for leaders in times of crisis is to identify what to do. Calling all hands on deck is a good response, but it is only the first step. When you call them you had better have things for them to do. Such responses are often executed on the fly, that is, as the crisis unfolds. That is why beforehand a leader needs to surround herself with people who are capable of managing in a crisis. This is not easy. As the Great Recession took hold in late 2008, so often we heard senior executives say they had experienced nothing like it before and therefore did not know what to do. Not a comforting answer!

What a savvy leader looks for are competent people who have experienced tough times in their career, for example a business failure, a project crash, or a reorganization gone wrong. How these folks responded in those setbacks will give you an insight into their ability to manage the next crisis. Those who got knocked around and down but found ways to bounce back are the kind of people you want on your team. Call this the resiliency factor; it is a vital component to managing in tough times.

As much as we want our leaders responsive to the crisis at hand, leaders need to be careful they do not overplay the urgency card. For example, as in Chrysler's case, Marchionne wanted all his key executives working hard to ensure survivability. That works well in the short run, but over the long haul the price of such work can be expensive. A recent survey conducted by Regus, a workplace solutions company, showed that 34% of professionals who were considering quitting work this year would do so because of "overwork."

Employees need to take a break from the action so that they can recharge themselves, if only for a weekend or so. Work, work, work not only makes Jack and Jill dull, it leads to under-productivity over time. You are less effective when you are worn down.

Leaders make the call to action for responding to the challenges and crises. How the leader does it, and when he does, is a measure of an individual who can read the situation and respond appropriately. Such a leader knows the strengths of this team as well as how to get the best out of them. As well as when to let them relax and enjoy time off!

By John Baldoni

 |  August 17, 2010; 8:39 AM ET
Category:  Congressional leadership , Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The problem is Congress, not summer recess | Next: Democratic leadership has lost its way


Please report offensive comments below.

Dear John,

Thank you very much for your article. Actually the Chrysler reorganization is an extremely interesting case both from the industrial and human point of view.
Do you know any study on this operation and which techniques are they using (coaching?, team building?, other?).

Best Regards,

Posted by: marclett | August 17, 2010 9:13 PM
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A crisis never built a team, for the same reason there are no atheists in foxholes. Inexperienced Leaders mistake their mission as one to promote "theism", a groupthink which will save the day. In reality, building and training the team is the mission. That cannot be said to commence until after the first order to stand down.

Posted by: gannon_dick | August 17, 2010 1:22 PM
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