Part 2: Success Behaviors for Leading Through a Downturn

Mountain Peak Sunlight - Free ImagesIn this second installment on Leading Through a Downturn, we’ll look at behaviors and modes of operating that can either accelerate an organization’s recovery or tether it to its slump.

Again, taking stock of the companies I’ve worked for and consulted with, I’ve identified the Success Behaviors of the leaders who were the driving forces behind their company’s recovery. At the end of this post, you’ll find Practices to apply to your own leadership.


CONTROL ~ As mentioned in my last post, having a sense of control over one’s direction can restore confidence. There are many variations of control, but typically, it occurs in two dimensions: the negative and the positive.

“Negative Control” is what we see in leaders who have allowed fear or arrogance (or both) to dictate their mindset and actions. The leader seizes control, minimizes the autonomy of team members, and second guesses colleagues, preferring to believe he is smarter or knows better. Delegation is reigned in. Criticizing, laying blame and seeking credit become the modus operandi. The environment often devolves into one of anxiety and disengagement as employees are held accountable for results, yet lack input and authority.  When your leadership operates from Negative Control, it’s not unusual to see a prolonged downturn.

On the flip side, “Positive Control” occurs when a leader engages colleagues as co-creators of the vision and strategy. This leader understands that viable solutions will not emerge from the lone wolf expert, but rather must leverage the collective wisdom. Facilitating open dialogues, listening with curiosity and respect, and encouraging debate are essential tools. When the time comes, control is relinquished in a responsible manner. Having created an environment of shared ownership and accountability, strategies are cascaded and teams are empowered to refine and execute their action plans. The focus for this leader is on driving the renewal process through collaboration and trust, not by command and control.


COMPOSURE ~ A highly successful leader I once worked with used to say, “Inside every tornado, the eye of the storm is the calmest place to be. As a leader, you must be able to put yourself in that spot – you must be the calm inside the storm.

He was speaking about the ability to find clarity and purpose in the midst of swirling emotions and chaos. Focus. A clear head. The ability to distinguish between reaction and responsible action. The self-awareness to recognize one’s own emotions, coupled with the self-discipline to channel those emotions productively.

Leaders who maintain their composure still possess great intensity. It shows up as passion. They demonstrate an urgency to ignite creativity, drive innovation, and be decisive in setting the course.

We all know the flip side of composure – arrogance, criticizing others, making snarky comments, an inability to entertain opposing ideas, resistance or retreat when confronted. The list goes on. We’re all human. We all have triggers. And we can all get hooked by those triggers in times of stress.

The key is being able to recognize the early warning signs that your own composure is slipping, so that you can step back and check your reactions. This pause creates the space for reflection and perspective that enables you to respond thoughtfully, rather than emotionally.


TRUST & HUMILITY ~ When you peel back the onion of exceptional leadership, at the heart you find trust and humility.

The most impactful leaders generate trust by having the courage to say what needs to be said directly, yet with regard for their colleagues. Respect for self and others is a hallmark of their style and they can be relied upon to be authentic. Playing politics doesn’t work with these leaders, since they operate with a “No B.S. Barometer.”

Equally important, they trust that they and their teams are capable and competent, possessing the resilience to face whatever lies ahead. They’re able to make tough decisions from a place of fairness and with compassion for those who will be affected. All of this generates organizational trust, resulting in a safe environment that enables creativity, trial-and-error, and an acceptable threshold for mistakes.

Lastly, their humility is the counterbalance that ensures the leader is confident, not arrogant.


PERSPECTIVE ~ For many companies, the easiest route out of a downturn is to pull in future business while restructuring the organization. While these tactics may positively impact month-end or quarterly numbers, ultimately, more pressure is heaped on an already stressed organization and a vicious cycle of relying on forecasted business is created. People are left with fewer resources trying to plug the same hole again and again.

focus-Free ImagesLeaders who are successful in exiting the downturn live by a different mantra: Solve for today, while building for tomorrow. By maintaining both a short- and long-term perspective, they encourage their teams to build action plans that address the immediate situation while keeping an eye on long-term growth goals. Budgets may be limited for a period of time or in some functions, but you’ll see an investment plan elsewhere.

Laying parallel tracks means being selective. Trade-offs have to be considered and difficult decisions must be made. So the leader is always asking him/herself: How does this decision today help or hurt our performance next year? The year after? What does this plan set us up for? What does it prevent or delay down the road?

Strategic choices are made only when the leader and the leadership team are fully-informed. This creates a level of responsibility and shared ownership that can unify the team and cascade to the organization.  If positions still need to be eliminated, there is organizational confidence that it isn’t a knee-jerk, short-term solution.


Without doubt, I could add to this list. And you probably have a few gems from your own experience that you could throw in, too. These are the behaviors, though, that time and again, seem to be game changers for the companies and leadership teams I personally know and have supported.

Below are some practices you can take on to build awareness around how you operate in the face of a business downturn or crisis. These are intended to help you intentionally prepare yourself to be at your very best the next time around.

Check back again for the final installment of this 3-Part Series when I’ll take a look at how culture and organizational capabilities play a role in a business recovery.



1) Draw four columns in your notebook and title them: Event / Reaction / Impact / Lessons. Reflect on the last few crises you’ve faced and deconstruct what evolved. Give each key stage an “Event” headline, then capture your reaction to that event … thoughts, communications, actions. Then note the impact of your leadership +/-. Did you have the effect you intended? How else could you have responded to generate a better result? Lastly, consider the lessons you want to take forward with you. Look for opportunities to enhance your leadership through the areas covered in the blog above.

2) To lead with intention, use another four column approach to help you navigate current challenges. This time, label the columns: Event / Reaction / Desired Impact / Leadership Behavior. If you’re actively paying attention to how you respond to conflict and crisis, you’ll begin to notice patterns in your Reactions. Capture your Reaction and notice if it’s coming from a positive or negative place. Then take a few moments to identify the Impact you want to have as a leader. To achieve that result, how must you think, speak and act? Capture this as your Leadership Behavior and take the necessary course of action.

3) Develop the ability to know when you’re sliding into your Negative Control tendencies now – before you’re in a crisis situation. Pay attention to your thinking, speaking and actions in daily discussions and decision-making scenarios. When and with whom do you tend to take over the discussions and decisions? How frequently do you re-set the course of action for those around you or on your team? What is driving those behaviors? There will naturally be times when, as a manager, your role is to exercise your judgment and guide the direction your people take. There are also times when it’s important to let go and allow others to develop from their own experience. The goal is to be intentional about which of these you’re doing and to strike a balance between both.


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