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Needed: Leadership for Uncertain Times

Mal Fletcher
Posted 28 December 2008
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The December 29 edition of TIME Magazine notes that, "Just like its banks and its carmakers, America's shattered confidence is in serious need of a bailout."

After interviewing President-elect Barack Obama, the magazine notes that, "'Yes, we can' is both an affirmation of optimism and the essential claim of the competent."

Competence and optimism are two of the most important aspects of leadership - especially in times like these, where executives, managers and the general work-force face great uncertainty and tough economic choices.

Competence and confidence are not the only aspects of leadership, but they are the most needed in difficult seasons.

In many ways, confidence comes out of competence, both personally and corporately. People will never overcome great challenges unless they are surrounded by a culture of confidence; unless they work in an environment where success is celebrated and innovation is normal.

Leaders can't build that kind of culture unless they have an underlying confidence in their own ability, personal qualities and level of skill.

For a true leader, competence is based on three fundamental factors. The first is, of course, experience. It is from experience that a leader draws his/her responses to challenges, many of which will be based on an "educated intuition" that has developed over time.

In many ways, there is no substitute for longevity when it comes to leadership. If Malcolm Gladwell's latest book is correct, and genius level expertise in any activity is really a result of more than 10,000 hours of practice, then leaders who have focused on a specific area of expertise over a long period will find themselves set above the rest.

Tough times are the best times for us to sit back and ask ourselves: "Where have I had the most experience as a leader? What competencies have taken me the longest to develop?" The answers may reveal where we will be most productive and effective during a difficult season. We should aim to place themselves in situations that call for those particular skills and personal characteristics.

I think it was Warren Buffet who said that when the tide goes out you can see who's been swimming naked. Tough times cause people to dig under the surface, to look behind the titles when it comes to their leaders. They want to know that there is substance behind the style. They want to know there has been a solid process of personal growth behind the elevation to a position.

That is certainly true when, as has happened recently, trusted figures in business and banking have been unmasked and shown to be either incompetents or charlatans.

For a leader, competence also comes through education. I don't mean simply learning of the academic variety - though that is helpful -- I mean the development and honing of leadership skills through ongoing training, mentoring and personal networking.

It's in times like these that each of us should look for new opportunities for alliances with like-minded leaders. Alliances, of course, are always essential in any area of leadership, but I think they are more so when individual resources seem to be at a low ebb.

Simply put, we need each other if we going to bring about lasting change and improve people's lives - which is the goal of all good leadership.

This is a great time for us to seek out opportunities to mentor others, too. This capacity for mentoring is one of the key differences between management and leadership.

While management takes its cues from best practice and benchmarking, leadership is driven by innovation. Management seeks to improve structures, leaders look to build new cultures.

Management tries to get the job done, as quickly and efficiently as possible, adding value to the company. Leadership strives to add value to people, stretching and encouraging them so that they reach heights they previously felt were unattainable.


Some leaders will bemoan the fact that they have not had enough mentoring themselves, while others will seize the opportunity to make up the deficit, providing for their team members what they themselves were denied.

It is a truism, yet true: the power of our encouragement is often in inverse proportion to how we feel when we give it. Our ability to lift the spirits of others, to raise their motivation and performance levels, is often highest at the very time when we feel least encouraged ourselves.

Many of Nelson Mandela's fellow inmates on Robin Island have said that they drew great strength from his sense of calm and quiet confidence, even in the worst of times. He seemed always to hold his head high, as if he somehow knew that everything would work out well in the end.

The man himself has said, though, that he often felt very unnerved and fearful about his situation. He just refused to let his physical bearing or his way of speaking betray those feelings.

At some of Mandela's lowest points, he was at his most regal and able to empower others by example. The mentoring experience is often more powerful when it is built up in times of trouble.

There is a great deal more that could be said about the interface between competence and confidence for a leader.

But at the end of the day, confidence must be personal before it is professional -- that is, we must be comfortable in our own skin rather than simply confident behind our own desk. We must draw our sense of hope from inner reserves rather than external settings or events.

In April 2007, a technical glitch temporarily denied service to 5 million Blackberry users in one region of the USA. At the time, psychologists reported an increase in the number of business people seeking their help. They saw an upsurge in symptoms including nervousness, irritability and feelings of isolation -- all symptoms of classic drug withdrawal. Some of the people who sought their help reported "phantom vibrations", signals that they had mail when in fact their e-mail device wasn't even working.

This story reminds me that whilst we rely on external tools to help us with so many things in life and leadership there is no technology that will replace a balanced and healthy inner life.

People enjoy being around a leader who is comfortable with himself or herself; someone who doesn't need external things like physical gadgets, status symbols or leadership titles to prop up a flagging self-esteem.

Perhaps that's what people mean when they say that the young President-elect exudes a kind of 'cool' when others around him are in a flap. As for the quality of his leadership, time alone will tell. One thing is certain, though, these uncertain times require a higher brand of leadership from us all.


Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2008

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Keywords: leadership | recessions | credit crunch | mal fletcher | social comment | social issues | social commentary | news issues | Time magazine | obama

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