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Leaders today need to define a future

Leaders today need to define a future
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First Published: Mon, May 04 2009. 12 49 AM IST

Updated: Mon, May 04 2009. 12 49 AM IST
What is your definition of leadership?
Pat Campbell, Belfast, Northern Ireland
You ask a timeless question—and it has perhaps never been more timely. People in your country, in the US, and all over the world are confused, frightened and angry. Many are feeling deeply betrayed by the failures of the institutions and individuals they trusted to protect and guide their lives and livelihoods. They’re wondering—like you, it appears—what sort of leadership is needed to get us out of the mess we’re in, both in government and business.
Leaders, too, are feeling the burden of these unprecedented times. Like the rest of us, most leaders did not see the collapse coming or anticipate its scale, and few know when it will end. Indeed, all that most leaders know for sure right now is that confidence in authority is at a generational low and the margin for managerial error has evaporated.
So, what is leadership—under the circumstances? The first answer is: Leadership is the same as always, only now leaders are in overdrive. Leaders need to exude positive energy. Define vision. Build great teams. Care. Reward. Teach. Decide. Innovate. Execute.
Some things never change.
But if you’re running a team, division or company right now, there’s one defining aspect of leadership that you cannot, you must not, neglect, despite the current craziness and morass: inventing your company’s future.
Look, in normal times, the central challenge of leadership is that of balancing the organization’s short- and long-term needs. Everyone knows that. Leaders must manage people, sales and costs to meet immediate financial commitments, and simultaneously invest in future projects that will capture market trends and ensure a going concern. As we’ve said before, this essential paradox of leadership requires that managers eat and dream at the same time.
Today, however, most managers are fixated on the short term. We understand: They must be, in this brute struggle for survival. They’re reducing staff, slashing costs and squeezing productivity. They’re sweating the details like never before, and pushing people to find the innovative killer application that could save the organization. Moreover, leaders are turning to their people, most of whom are already feeling frantic about job security, and asking them for redoubled intensity. “Work faster, harder and smarter,” leaders are saying, “or it could be that none of us will be here tomorrow.”
But then—and here’s the problem—many leaders are neglecting to define and create that tomorrow.
Why? Part of it is just human nature. When you’re drowning, you’re not thinking about what to put in the picnic basket for your next sunny day at the beach. You’re thinking, “Kick, kick, kick.”
But another part of the problem is pure conflict avoidance. Leaders sense in their bones how their people will react to any talk of long-term planning. “How can you be spending money on some blue-sky project when you’ve just laid off Joe and Mary?” those employees will demand to know. And, “You’re talking about reducing our benefits, and you’re going to invest in what?”
In a time of drastic cutbacks, spending money on anything can set off a deafening sound and fury. But don’t let that noise drown you out. Try to break through it and reach your people so that they can hear you when you talk about down-the-road ideas and projects. In order to overcome organizational fear, cynicism and hurt, the future you describe should be exciting and promising. You just have to help people understand that with everyone’s determination and buy-in, the company will someday be different—and better.
Make no mistake. We’re not suggesting that leaders today should try to balance short- and long-term needs 50-50. In this environment, that’s overkill. But if you’re a leader who’s putting 100% of your energy into present challenges, you could certainly shift that to something like 75% or 80%, devote the rest of your time and energy to figuring out what your company’s future could and should look like, and galvanize your people to create it with you.
We realize, of course, that current conditions are terrible and we understand completely why leaders are in short-term survival mode. But when the upturn arrives in a year or two or three, the business landscape will be new and different. There will be fewer competitors and perhaps more opportunity, but only for those companies that are primed and ready to seize it.
So remember, inventing the future is one crucial aspect of leadership. The true leaders of 2009 will be revealed when that future arrives.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com
Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
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First Published: Mon, May 04 2009. 12 49 AM IST
More Topics: Jack Welch | Suzy Welch | Winning | Leadership | US |