Are You the Last One Standing?
Are You the Last One Standing?
If you’re a manager in a downsized organization, don’t stand there waiting for the ax to fall
Sometimes managers feel like the last of a dying breed. Downsizing and cutbacks have cut management staffs to the bone. If you’re one of the few left standing, you know it’s a lonely feeling. And, let’s be honest, it’s also a scary one. You don’t know how to best ensure your own survival, so chances are you’re lying low, taking care not to make waves, and hoping the ax-wielders simply won’t notice you. But this is not the time to toe the status quo line.
As I explain in my book The Leader’s Compass: Set Your Course For Leadership Success (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2003), co-authored with Ed Ruggero, the metaphorical last one standing has an opportunity—an obligation—to take a strong leadership stance.
The ethical and financial scandals that have rocked the business community lately were caused, or at the very least enabled, by yes-men and yes-women who adapted, chameleon-like, to what was going on around them. This fact is reason enough to adopt a policy of strong, inspirational, principle-based leadership. The other reason is that when people are being weeded out, those with the strongest roots are the hardest to eliminate.
So what are the characteristics of strong leader-ship? To see the answer in action, we need only to look to America’s military academies. Indeed, Academy Leadership uses principles taught and practiced at West Point and the Naval Academy to conduct in-house training programs and workshops to develop leaders who achieve powerful business goals. Words such as perseverance, accountability, communication, self-discipline, and character often are heard in these sessions.
If you are to remain a viable, valuable leader for your entity even in the worst of economic times, I suggest you embrace the following guidelines:
Develop a personal leadership philosophy. The personal leadership philosophy, or PLP, is the “compass” in the title of my book. Basically, it’s a written document that includes your personal values, how you will carry out your responsibilities, what your priorities are, and what you expect of your people. Take your time and really think about what your beliefs and standards are. This document is the foundation for everything you do and say.
Familiarize yourself with the goals and values of your organization. Figure out how they fit into your philosophy. Read your entity’s mission statement and ponder it. Is it just a string of empty words or do employees live up to it? How can you ensure that your PLP meshes with your entity’s mission? There should be a synchronicity between the two. If your goals and values differ dramatically from the demonstrated ones of your entity, you must make a decision: Can you influence your department to live up to the glowing words on the entity’s mission statement? Or is it time to move on? Remember Shakespeare’s quote from Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
Articulate your personal philosophy and your entity’s goals/values to your team. Once you’ve written your PLP, share it with upper-level management and subordinates. Make sure they fully under-stand every word. Also, explain the connection between your personal philosophy and the goals and values of your organization. Your team needs to be clear on what you stand for and what you expect from them. How else will you be able to hold them accountable?
Model your personal leadership philosophy. Live it with passion. Your employees expect you to lead by example. Saying one thing and doing another will not inspire anyone. If you expect your team to pull an allnighter to meet a deadline, you must burn the midnight oil right along with them. Anything less will breed resentment and disrespect in your team. And don’t forget the most critical part of the equation: Passion is the key to successful leadership. No one ever inspired a team by being halfhearted or wishy-washy. When you love your work—when you come in each morning burning with the desire to do a great job and exceed the expectations of customers—that’s when people re-ally buy into your vision.
Don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions. Here’s a key parallel between military life and business life. In the heat of combat, leaders must make split-second decisions that literally are matters of life and death. Likewise, the decisions you make at work really can affect the vitality— and in some cases, the very existence—of your organization. That’s why you must make your decisions with confidence and resolve. The right decision isn’t always the popular one. And even when we think we’re making the right decision, it doesn’t always turn out the way we expected. But when you use your PLP to define the boundaries of your decisions, at least you’re being true to your own principles and values. In an imperfect world, this is the best you can do.
Hold people accountable. When you are leading men into battle, their lives are in your hands and yours in theirs. Everyone depends on the rest of the company not to let them down. This is the very definition of accountability. Now, translate this principle to the “battlefield” that is the business world. When you’re the leader, you owe it to your team to give 100 percent to everything you do. So does your team. Everyone’s livelihood depends on this level of accountability. If you’ve made the rules clear, there is an unshakable basis from which to provide honest feedback. Do it. Your team expects and wants this consideration from their leader.
Build your bench. Too many entities view leadership as some mysterious trait that you have at birth. But in service academies it’s expected that many people have leadership potential, and these organizations work to bring out that potential. This is how you should approach leadership training. As a leader, you are only as good as your ability to develop others. The fast pace of today’s business world and flatter, leaner management structures mean that critical decisions must be made at lower levels than ever before. You must ensure that your people have the leadership ability to make these decisions.
Don’t be a lone wolf. And if you’re a gray wolf, don’t ignore the brown ones. A strong leader is not a one-person operation. If you can’t delegate, you can’t lead. But if you’re like many leaders, you may favor those people with whom you feel most comfortable—the ones most like you. That’s a mistake. In the military you live in close proximity with people from all races, cultures, and economic backgrounds. You’re forced to interact with a diverse group of people in order to get things done, and sometimes the most unlikely lifelong friendships arise. Adopt this attitude in business and you’ll go far as a leader. Sometimes people who are very different from you have exactly what your team needs to get a certain job done. Focus on your ability to connect with everyone.
Don’t get stuck in survival mode. In anxious times, we tend to operate with tunnel vision, working fast and furious to meet our customer’s needs. That’s normal. But when things are a bit more relaxed—perhaps during a seasonal lull in business—it’s time to step back and reflect on the big picture. Are you missing an opportunity to move in a new direction? Don’t be afraid to adjust your PLP or your department’s goals if there’s a good reason to do so. And, of course, don’t forget to communicate any changes to your team.
Never, ever, ever stop growing. Life is change. So is business. You must grow as a leader, every day. And your organization must grow as well. In successful organizations, the two will happen in tandem. Don’t use an unsteady economy as an excuse to be static; don’t be afraid to take well-thought-out risks. Actually, standing still is a risk, because that’s when you get run over by the competition.
Finally, try to see this uncertain time in your career as an opportunity, not a liability. When things aren’t going so well, it means you have a chance to really make a difference as a leader. Think about it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, when it is “broke,” there is a desperate need for someone to “fix it.” Why shouldn’t that someone be you?
You can play an integral role in turning around a struggling organization, and, at the same time, create a name for yourself as a leader who re-ally makes things happen. What could be more satisfying than that?
Editor’s Notes: Dennis F. Haley graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967, then served in the Nuclear Surface Navy. After a tour of duty in Vietnam, he joined the family business, transforming it from a five-man operation to a multimillion-dollar company. After the company was sold in 1997, Haley used his military experiences to help others become successful business leaders. He now is CEO of Academy Leadership (www.academyleadership.com).
The Leader’s Compass: Set Your Course for Leadership Success (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2003) by Dennis F. Haley and Ed Ruggero, ISBN: 0-9727323-0-6, $14.95, is available at bookstores nationwide, at online retailers, or order it directly at www.academyleadership.com.