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Lead or Fail: Be a Successful Leader in Turbulent Times

Lead or Fail – Guest Blog Post by Scott Span, MSOD

Leadership isn’t what it used to be. That is not to say that being a leader was or is ever easy, or that previous fundamentals should be tossed aside. However, in tough times, remaining a great leader can be even harder. So what makes a successful leader in turbulent times? First and foremost, the ability to adapt your leadership style to changing environmental influences is key to being a successful leader.

Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup says that in the new normal, old ways of doing business won’t work anymore. “The men and women who will conquer this new world will be the ones who best understand their constituencies’ state of mind.” By state of mind, Clifton is referring to new revelations being uncovered by behavioral economists — starting with the discovery that human decision making is more emotional than rational.  As a leader, Clifton shares a similar mindset to many behavioral scientists and organizational development practitioners.  His view is that one of the most fundamental states of mind that leaders need to understand is the needs and desires of their employees: “…their will to work, their will to live, their will to revolt, their will to follow you. Another element of state of mind is emotional affect: how much stress your constituency feels about money, about trying to get to work, about their relationship with their boss.”

Clifton believes that to be a successful leader you have to firmly understand states of mind. In his view, everything important, everything human comes down to states of mind. The leader who is the best at understanding, relating to and communicating states of mind will be the one who wins.

As an organizational development practitioner and behavioral scientist, I share Clifton’s views; understanding and exhibiting certain human behaviors help to shape great leaders and great organizations.

Some behaviors of great leaders:

  1. Transparency – People can usually tell when “something is up,” so before the rumors begin flying and productivity is impacted, leadership should inform employees. When making strategic decisions, determining organizational changes or facing issues that impact employees, successful leaders need to be transparent with their workforce about how these matters arose, their thought process for dealing with them, and how their solutions may directly impact those they lead.

  2. Communication – Being in a leadership position can sometimes be a solitary role. Often leaders make decisions in a vacuum and rely on managers or supervisors to communicate important information downward. Successful leaders lead through two-way communication. Much of it is nonverbal. For instance, when leaders “set the example,” that communicates to their people that they would not ask them to perform anything that they would not be willing to do themselves, this only helps to make leaders appear more human to employees. Particularly in turbulent times, people value direct interaction and communication from leaders. This not only helps to show that leaders are remaining committed to the people in organization, but also offers an opportunity for them to step out of the “tower” and build relationships with employees.

  3. Trust – Trust is a fundamental behavior for any relationship, both personal and professional. According to a study by the Hay Group, a global management consultancy, there are 75 key components of employee satisfaction (Lamb & McKee, 2009). They found that: Trust and confidence in top leadership was the single most reliable predictor of employee satisfaction in an organization. Trust must be earned. Leaders can earn employee trust by helping employees understand the company’s overall business strategy, informing them how they contribute to achieving key business objectives and sharing information with employees on both how the company is doing and how an employee’s own division is doing relative to organizational objectives. It is much easier for employees to trust a leader that shows an interest in them.

  4. Compassion – The basis of good leadership is honorable character and selfless service to the organization; compassion for employees and both their professional and personal situations.  His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama says, “I call compassion the global staple…for all people in every endeavor.” In employees’ eyes, what leadership does effects the organization’s objectives and their well-being. When a person is deciding if they respect a leader, they don’t think about attributes, rather they observe what leaders do. Observations can often tell an employee if a leader is an honorable and trusted person or a self-serving person, one who misuses authority to look good and get promoted. Self-serving leaders are not as effective because their employees only obey them, not follow them. When leaders show compassion and understanding for employees and their situations, it becomes much easier for them to notice that their leaders are in fact interested and concerned, and not as self serving as possibly thought.

  5. Self Awareness – Successful leaders have a heightened level of self awareness, they have an understanding of themselves, their behaviors and actions, and how those behaviors and actions are interpreted by, and directly impact, employees. A good example of leadership self awareness is exhibited in the U.S. Army’s leadership philosophy, be, know, do. Be proficient and competent, know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and do take responsibility and lead by example. Always be open to further growth and learning. Professional coaching is also a great well to help further develop leader self awareness.

A colleague shared a speech with me given last year by Marillyn Hewson President, Systems Integration-Owego, Lockheed Martin Corporation on leadership in turbulent times. To Marillyn, leadership is a set of personal behaviors that set the course and create an environment that energizes people to achieve a goal. Marillyn says “…it’s easy to be a leader when everything is going great. The challenge is how you act when things go wrong. In times of great change… or tremendous challenge… that’s when the leadership fundamentals matter most.” Most competitive and sustainable organizations have great leaders. Are you one?

Author Bio:

Scott Span, MSOD, is President of Tolero Solutions, an Organizational Development and Change Management consultancy. Tolero Solutions specializes in developing people and organizations to be more responsive, focused and effective to facilitate sustainable growth. Scott successfully delivers organizational improvement solutions to staff teams, individuals and organizations in multiple areas including change management, culture change, leadership development & coaching, engagement, retention, performance and sustainability. He is an author on various topics of organizational development including cross generational communication, generational alignment, and Gen Y in the workplace and the creator of the Gen Y Recruitment and Retention Lifecycle ™. His results have not only helped achieve desired goals, but have also increased personal growth and development, leading to a more efficient and effective work environment.  He may be reached at

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