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“A core capacity of leadership is the ability to make the right decisions while flying blind, basing them on knowledge, wisdom and the ability to stay wedded to an overriding goal.” –Warren Bennis as quoted in Onward by Howard Schultz

It’s the challenging times that build your leadership character.

Almost anyone and any team can prosper during rising tide situations…a hot economy, a regulatory change that acts as a boon to an industry or, even a hot product that for a moment catches competitors off guard. Certainly, it takes good management and leadership to exploit those opportunities, but the work of leading in these fortunate circumstances is different than the work of navigating the troubled waters of crisis.

During the rising tide situations, the game is simplified…the way forward is clear and the challenges defined. Exploit the opportunity; move fast to deliver more; execute, execute, execute.

It’s when conditions change that the view ahead becomes one giant fog bank and leading suddenly turns difficult. As mentioned in my recent Art of Managing post, “Steering Clear of Flail and Fail,” our tendency as times turn challenging is to overreact. We engage in the undisciplined pursuit of more (Jim Collins) in the naïve hope that something will work and return us to the bliss point of easy days and restful nights… those times where the planets align and all of the indicators point in the right direction and we can congratulate ourselves on our brilliance.

I love the quote from Bennis at the top of this article, because it so succinctly and powerfully captures the truth about the real job of a leader: guiding the firm and team through the fog and safely beyond peril.

Effective leaders understand that there’s no easy way out of a crisis. There are no silver bullets, no sure-fire strategy templates and no programs, courses or approaches that replace the hard work of navigating ambiguity. Someone has to stand up and point and say, “This way.”

The history of the world and the history of modern management are filled with examples to learn from. Facing extreme uncertainty and miserable weather that blew up most of the plans for supporting the troops in the invasion of Normandy in World War II, General Eisenhower sought the input of his best advisors. They were split on whether to go or not given the weather and the inherent risks to the entire operation and thousands of lives. We’ll go,” he uttered, after staring out the window into the fog and darkness, knowing that many would die and success was far from guaranteed. The moment had arrived.

While less fateful in terms of human lives, but incredibly impactful in terms of the business and livelihood of thousands, Howard Schultz, the newly returned CEO of struggling Starbucks made a series of decisions that were contrary to the advice of the critics, analysts and pundits during the 2008 downturn. Anchored with the conviction that he could not compromise when it came to serving his partners (employees), his customers and guided by his overarching belief in the good that his firm provided to millions, he did what he believed was right and he and the team persevered. He retained healthcare for part-time employees, shut down the chain for a day of much needed Barista training, took 10,000 of his store managers to New Orleans to rediscover their passion and help a struggling community and said “No!” to the cry to cut quality and take short-cuts in the name of profits.

Schultz effectively employed Eisenhower’s “We’ll go” which in his one word rallying cry, was “Onward.” The decisions rallied the firm and galvanized his top leaders to fight harder and the push to innovate when others said, “cut” paid off. Eventually. Results are never immediate and wise crisis leaders know that things get worse until they turn towards better.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While most of our own experiences in leading won’t make the history books or become the stuff of business legend, they are no less significant in our own lives and for the lives and welfare of those around us. The way forward is murkiest just at the point where we need to choose a path and then lead into the fog, uncertain of outcome or success. Focus on the bigger issues…the ability of you and your coworkers to continue working on fulfilling a noble mission or on preserving the welfare of those who depend upon you and your firm. And importantly, recognize that everything in your past as a leader and as a professional was simply practice for the journey ahead.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.