Lead or Fail: Successful Leadership in Turbulent Times

Turbulent Times

Leadership isn’t what it used to be. The corner offices are slowly disappearing. The days of barking orders and expecting people to blindly follow are over.

Accountability, responsibility and transparency are on the rise – though someone should tell that to BP CEO.

Workforce demographics and diversity are changing. The days of leading like Franklin M. Hart Jr. are over.

It Ain’t Easy

This is not to say that being a leader was, or is, ever easy; or that earlier fundamentals should be tossed aside. However, in tough times, remaining a great leader can be even harder.

So what makes a successful leader in turbulent times? First and foremost, the ability to adapt your leadership style to changing environmental influences is key to being a successful leader. Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup says that “in the new normal,” old ways of doing business won’t work anymore.

The men and women who will conquer this new world will be the ones who best understand their constituencies’ state of mind.” ~Jim Clifton

By state of mind, Clifton is referring to new revelations being uncovered by behavioral economists — starting with the discovery that human decision-making is more emotional than rational.  As a leader, Clifton shares a similar mindset to many behavioral scientists and organizational development practitioners.

His view is that one of the most fundamental states of mind that leaders need to understand is the needs and desires of their employees: “…their will to work, their will to live, their will to revolt, their will to follow you.

Another element of state of mind is emotional affect: “how much stress your constituency feels about money, about trying to get to work, about their relationship with their boss.” Clifton believes that to be a successful leader you have to firmly understand states of mind.

In his view, everything important; everything human comes down to states of mind. The leader who is the best at understanding, relating to and communicating states of mind will be the one who wins.

Not that leadership is about winning or losing, however it sure is about winning over those you lead. As an organizational development practitioner and behavioral scientist, I share Clifton’s views; understanding and exhibiting certain human behaviors help to shape great leaders and great organizations.

“Leadership is best viewed through the eyes of the follower.” ~Tom Schulte

Behave Yourself!

Here are some behaviors of great leaders during turbulent times:


People can usually tell when “something is up.” So before the rumors begin flying and productivity is impacted, leadership should tell employees. When making strategic decisions, determining organizational changes or facing issues that impact employees, successful leaders need to be transparent with their workforce about how these matters arose, their thought process for dealing with them, and how their solutions may directly impact those they lead.


Being in a leadership position can sometimes be a solitary role. Often leaders make decisions in a vacuum and rely on managers or supervisors to communicate important information downward. Successful leaders lead through two-way communication. Much of it is nonverbal. For instance, when leaders “set the example,” that communicates to their people that they would not ask them to do anything that they would not be willing to do themselves, this only helps to make leaders seem more human to employees.

Particularly in turbulent times, people value direct interaction and communication from leaders. This not only helps to show that leaders are remaining committed to the people in organization, but also offers an opportunity for them to step out of the “tower” and build relationships with employees.


Trust is a fundamental behavior for any relationship, both personal and professional. According to a study by the Hay Group, a global management consultancy, there are 75 key components of employee satisfaction (Lamb & McKee, 2009).

They found that: Trust and confidence in top leadership was the single most reliable predictor of employee satisfaction in an organization. Trust must be earned. Leaders can earn employee trust by helping employees understand the company’s overall business strategy, informing them how they contribute to achieving key business goals and sharing information with employees on both how the company is doing and how an employee’s own division is doing relative to organizational objectives.

It is much easier for employees to trust a leader that shows an interest in them.


The basis of good leadership is honorable character and selfless service to the organization; compassion for employees and both their professional and personal situations.  His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama says, “I call compassion the global staple…for all people in every endeavor.” In employees’ eyes, what leadership does affects the organization’s objectives and their well-being.

When a person is deciding if they respect a leader, they don’t think about attributes, rather they see what leaders do. Observations can often tell an employee if a leader is an honorable and trusted person or a self-serving person, one who misuses authority to look good and get promoted. Self-serving leaders are not as effective because their employees only obey them, not follow them. When leaders show compassion and understanding for employees and their situations, it becomes easier for them to notice that their leaders are interested and concerned, and not as self-serving as possibly thought.

Self Awareness

Successful leaders have a heightened level of self-awareness, they have an understanding of themselves, their behaviors and actions, and how those behaviors and actions are interpreted by, and directly impact, employees. A good example of leadership self-awareness is exhibited in the U.S. Army’s leadership philosophy of “be, know, do.”

Be proficient and competent, know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and do take responsibility and lead by example. Always be open to further growth and learning. Professional coaching is also a great well to help further develop leader self-awareness.

A colleague shared a speech with me given last year by Marillyn Hewson, President of Systems Integration-Owego, Lockheed Martin Corporation on the subject of leadership in turbulent times. To Marillyn, leadership is a set of personal behaviors that set the course and create an environment that energizes people to meet a goal.

Marillyn says “…it’s easy to be a leader when everything is going great. The challenge is how you act when things go wrong. In times of great change… or tremendous challenge… that’s when the leadership fundamentals matter most.”

Most competitive and sustainable organizations have great leaders at the top, and in the ranks!

Do you think you are one of those great leaders? Do you exhibit the best behaviors in the ares of transparency, communication, trust, compassion, and self-awareness? If not, what are your points of struggle? What are you doing to better your daily behaviors to become a person with even greater influence? I ‘d love to hear your story!

Bookmark Lead or Fail: Successful Leadership in Turbulent Times

Scott Span, MSOD
is President of Tolero Solutions OD & Change Management firm
He helps clients be responsive, focused and effective to facilitate sustainable growth

Email | Website | LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog

Image Sources: math.waikato.ac.nz

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11 responses to “Lead or Fail: Successful Leadership in Turbulent Times

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  2. I agree, being a leader is never easy, especially in turbulent times. Leaders should be willing to acknowledge a problem. Vineet Nayar of HCL Technologies is a perfect example of a great leader. He implemented the unconventional idea of ‘putting employees first’ in his organization. In his book ‘Employees First, Customers Second’, he talks about building trust by encouraging transparency in communication and information sharing.


    • Thanks Kavita. Putting employees first, wow, what a concept! I will most definitely check out the book.


  3. Great post. I have to comment on one thing though: were the corner offices ever actually held by leaders?


  4. Thanks for the feedback David. I should have been more specific, those corner offices were, and in some cases still are, held by those who call (underline call) themselves leaders.


  5. Hey Scott,

    Leadership is leadership in tough times as well as the good times, plain and simple. The problem is, most people in the corner office are not great leaders in the first place. These managers expect people to sacrifice and forfeit on behalf of an entity or organization that has no compassion or loyalty to them in either boom or bust.

    Leadership flaws that can be hidden in good times are exaggerated and exposed when the going gets tough. If a leader did not take the time to build relationships during the boom, you will have a difficult time leading in periods of turmoil.

    Leadership, you can pay me now or you can pay me later.


  6. Rick,
    I agree, many of those who perceive themselves as “leaders” in fact have no clue what being a true leader means. This is even more of a reason why leadership development and coaching is of importance, someone has to increase their self awareness!


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