When Things Don’t Go Well

Whether you lead a team of 5 or 5000, if you do it long enough, you are going to experience difficult times. You are going to go through some rough stretches that will test every ounce of your leadership ability and resolve. While some of these rough stretches could have been avoided, others are hard to explain and almost seem unavoidable. In either case, tough times are when leaders are needed the most. It’s in those tough times, those times when things are falling apart all around you, that real leaders come to the front and make a difference. The list below are just 10 ideas or thoughts related to leading when things aren’t going well.

1. Understand that you will go through rough times. No matter what you do or what group of people you lead, you will have stretches of time where things don’t go well. I remember playing high school baseball years ago. For the first couple of weeks as a sophomore second baseman, everything I hit found a hole and my batting average was beyond my wildest imagination. Two weeks later, I couldn’t buy a hit. I wasn’t doing anything any different. I was still taking extra batting practice, still hitting on a tee before games, still doing everything just the same, but the results were noticeably different. Sometimes our team’s performance is like that too. Sometime we just can’t explain why we are having performance issues, but sometimes we can. Either way, realize difficult times come regardless, and we have to find a way through them. That’s part of life and part of leading.

2. Leaders run to the problem not away from it. Leaders can’t check out when things get tough. Leaders can’t ignore things that aren’t going well and hope things magically get better. I recently read a book titled “Chasing the Lion” where the author, Mark Batterson, told the story of a young man “running to the roar” rather than away from it. The lion was a threat and the only way to eliminate the threat was to deal with it head on. Not many of us will be called upon to chase a lion, but we will all have our own set of opportunities over time. The key is you can’t check out, you can’t ignore it, you have to face the challenge . Run to the roar.

3. Tough times are a good time to evaluate systems and processes. Leaders need to make sure the systems and processes that we use to get work done are both comprehensive and sufficient to drive success if they are executed well. In other words, does the current failure or poor performance indicate there is a flaw or something lacking in our approach to getting work done or monitoring the work? Always challenge no matter how long we have been “doing it that way”.

4. The logical next step after evaluating the system and processes is to evaluate how well we are actually executing on what we say we are going to do. Are we really doing what we said? From traveling around and seeing various operations over the years, I think this area is our biggest challenge. Getting everyone to really do what we say we need to do, all the time. Execution is key in every facet of business, sports, civic organizations, etc. It doesn’t matter our brilliant a game plan we have, if we don’t execute the plan well. Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, is well known for brilliant game planning. That’s great, but you know it helps to have Tom Brady execute the game plan. One without the other is not nearly as effective. Leaders that can execute a plan well will have fewer rough stretches, and those that they do have likely won’t last as long.

5. Leaders know when to ask for help. Get over the pride thing. Leadership is about achieving the mission and looking out for the best interest of those you lead. It’s not about how much you know nor about how much credit you can get. If you need help, ask for it. One of my favorite movies is “We Were Soldiers”. It is true story about Colonel Mal Moore leading the first major US involvement in the Vietnam War. At one point in the movie, about to be overrun by enemy forces, Moore gives the command of “broken arrow”. This command is a call for all available US air support to get on scene and engage as US troops are in danger of being overrun. Moore wasn’t too proud to ask for support. While his strategy was sound, his execution was outstanding, he still needed help. At times, we do too. Know when to ask for help. Don’t overuse “broken arrow”, but when you need it , get help.

6. Communicate well. Leaders need to know how to communicate in difficult times. If you need to get followers attention, then be passionate and get the level of attention needed to get on track. If that’s not the issue, then provide that calm resolve that “we” will weather the storm together. Leaders know the situation and know what their people need at that time. Leaders have to use controlled emotion at times to elicit a change of behavior; however, leaders can’t be emotional. A leader’s job is to lead effectively, not do what’s normal or comfortable for them. It doesn’t matter how you feel, what’s needed in a situation is what’s important. Adjust to the situation and communicate accordingly.

7. Don’t ever let the urgent get in front of the important. When going through difficult times or tough stretches of performance, it’s easy to lose sight of the really important things and focus on the urgent matters. I am not saying we don’t need a healthy sense of urgency at times. What I am referring to is not to misplace our core values to get a quicker fix to a problem. For example, if we are having long stretches of downtime on a machine, we obviously want to get that resolved as soon as possible, but never at the expense of having employees take shortcuts and risk injury. While getting a machine back up to desire operating levels is urgent, safety will always be more important. There are countless other examples. Leaders have to stress this item over and over. Difficult times are definitely “Moments of High Influence”. Use them well!

8. Be quick, but don’t hurry. I had a Jr. High football coach tell me this time and again when talking about making a read on an option play. While the decision needed to be quick to generate positive yardage, a hurried action would result in a turnover. Similarly, we need to be decisive and quick to action, but never rushed in making key decisions. Leaders have to stay above the fray at times and make solid decision in leading through difficult times. Get the information available, get input, be decisive and move forward quickly, but don’t ever get ahead of the information. You have to “wait” for that defensive end to commit before deciding whether to keep it or pitch it, but it does happen fast!

9. Look for small success to build momentum and drive further motivation. When things are going bad, people can get down and lose hope that things will ever get better. Set some short term achievable goals that can be built upon. Small successes can be the instrument for big turnarounds. If you are in a six foot ditch, you aren’t going to jump six feet out. Get one inch at a time. Sometimes that fist one is the toughest. Get some momentum and get going.

10. Leaders persevere and never accept anything less than reaching potential. Similar to #2 above, sometimes leaders just need to hang in there and ride it out with the people. Leaders get up every day and go face the challenge. When the leader gives up, the game is over. When the game is over, the followers ultimately lose. In World War II, Winston Churchill inspired an entire nation with the simple words of “never give up – never ever give up”.

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