Define Reality, Offer Hope

Posted 09.22.2008

Glass half full OK, let’s all take a deep breath and regain our perspective.  As an expert on emotional intelligence, Annie McKee points out in this touching and on-target post, dealing with the crisis in the financial system requires leaders who can keep their cool.  As Annie states, emotions are contagious.  Or, as a coaching colleague of mine, Alexander Caillet puts it, “Presence begets presence.”  As this week gets underway, I think it’s important to ask oneself, “What’s the impact of my leadership footprint in the midst of the economic uncertainty?”  What messages are you sending to and what impact are you having on your people through the way that you’re showing up?

In Good to Great, Jim Collins recounts an interview he had with the late Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking officer to be imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton.  In explaining how he and his men survived that ordeal, Stockdale said that it was a two part process.  The first was to confront the brutal facts of the current reality and the second was to retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.  I boil it down to this.  Leadership is a two part job:  Define reality and offer hope.

Whether or not you’re a person of faith, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is as good a model as any in terms of how you need to show up for yourself and your team in tough, uncertain times:

Grant me the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed, the courage to change that which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.

In my last corporate executive role, it was pretty clear that our parent company was either going to buy someone else or, more likely, that we were going to be bought.  The CEO of my business unit, Cathy Abbott, did a fantastic job in that period of uncertainty in keeping all of us on the senior team focused on executing our business plan.  That was the part we could control.   We could not control the outcome on acquiring or being acquired at the parent company level.  Cathy’s point was that no matter what happened, all of us as leaders along with our customers, employees and shareholders would be well served if we did everything we could to execute the plan.  In the end, we were bought.  I chose to leave later that year to start The Eblin Group.  Many of my colleagues chose to stay and, eight years later, a number of them are now running the company that acquired our parent.

None of us can predict what’s going to happen in the future or exactly how things will play out.  All we can control is our response right now.  That starts with defining reality and identifying the aspects that we can influence or control.  The next step is to offer hope that comes from the perspective that you and the team have been through tough times before and lived to tell the tale.  This time should be no different.

How are you defining reality and offering hope in your organization?