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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.

Take a deep breath

Question: Like U.S. presidents, military and non-profit leaders often face the equivalent of "midterm elections" in which they and their strategies are subject to an initial market test or performance evaluation. What's the first thing President Obama, or any leader, should do or say when confronted with unambiguously negative results from a mid-course evaluation?

Take a deep breath and think before acting.

That's the best advice that any leader should consider when faced with a setback. Before you do anything, you need to take stock of where you are now and where you want to go in the future. Toward that end there are three questions (first introduced to me in the book Hope Is Not a Method) I advise leaders in crisis to ask themselves.

What is happening? Consider the situation. When what you set out to achieve is not working out, it may be because people do not understand it, or do not understand you. This lack of understanding means that you and your initiative are stalled and you cannot proceed without a fundamental shift, either in priorities or in leadership style. For example, do people know what is expected of them? Do you set clear expectations? And do you listen to what others have to say?

What is not happening? Part of the situational analysis must involve what is not happening. As the result of a stalled initiative, think about the work that is not getting done, customers not being served or revenues not being generated. This question gets to the heart of consequences of failure.

What should I do to influence the outcome?
When problems arise, leaders act. Determine how you can mobilize yourself. Should you disengage and delegate this issue to others? Or should you invest more of yourself in the project? Other questions will arise, and seeking answers will help the leader gain clarity on what to do next. How the leader reacts will determine the outcome of the initiative--and in some cases the leader's own future.

While these questions are straightforward, the answers they provoke can be soul-searching, and in fact should be if the crisis the leader is facing is significant. Leaders do not have the luxury of not dealing with bad news; they must face it and do something about it. Not doing so is a failure of leadership.

There is one more note I would add to the reflection process. Do not be defensive. Adopt a technique that working actors use after being turned down for a role. Not getting the part does not mean you are not a capable and competent actor; it means that you are not right for the part. Therefore it is not personal, even though it may feel very personal.

What that means for a leader is that setbacks, even those personally directed at your leadership, are not about you as a person; they are about you as a leader. You must consider such feedback or setback as a challenge. What you do after being tested is the measure of your leadership mettle. Leaders who stand the test of time are those that can bend in the wind and even get knocked down. Strong leaders persevere; weak ones fade away.

Note: The questions cited in this piece have been adapted from those that Col. (later Gen.) Hal Moore used during a 36-hour firefight in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 and cited in Hope Is Not a Method, by Gordon R. Sullivan and Michael V. Harper. Moore's experiences in the Ia Drang Valley are described in We Were Soldiers... Once and Young, by Joe Galloway.

By John Baldoni

 |  November 1, 2010; 5:32 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Corporate leadership , Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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