Leading When Everything Sucks

Uncertainty. Instability. Discomfort. All circumstances that could be described as the times in which everything sucks. Yet, in each, leadership is still needed. And while the “sucks” described in this headline is common for vacuum excavation, it’s also both a common and a provocative term to describe the climate for leaders in recent months. What do you do in that environment? Or better yet, what have you done to sustain your team and leadership during such times all too often described as “unprecedented?”

We’re thankfully recovering and adjusting, but tough times will come again. They may not be of the same magnitude, but there will be times when things suck again. The next time you see a sizable dip in revenue. The next time you are forced to terminate team members. The next time you have to share bad news with employees and separate how much you like them from reality. No leader likes to live there for long, or very often, and yet, in spite of their difficulty, the tough times can also bring out great strength if you’re willing to let them. During the times you wish someone else were the leader or owner or chief in charge of the project, here are some guidelines that, even when you don’t feel like leading, will help you make the most of your own leadership.

Establish an Anchor

When you’re overwhelmed and feel like you’ve gotten caught near the drain of a water treatment system, it’s hard to find your footing. Time doesn’t move at a speed that feels normal. Panic and fear change our perspective on nearly everything and planning can feel pointless. When everything seems to suck, a little or a lot, or your situation simply sucks the wind out of your ability to sail through a normal day, find an anchor that’s permanent. For some, this is personal: a belief in themselves, a faith, or family member. For others, this can be foundational to the reason they began this business, or entered this line of work, or started helping people who later became valued customers. What is it that you lean on in the times when you need support, versus the times when you’re the giver of support to others? Whether your tough time is a family member with a serious illness, an economic downturn, or a worldwide pandemic, even the best, brightest and strongest leaders need a foundation on which to stand, a wall on which to occasionally lean, and an anchor to keep them grounded when everything around them seems to be changing. Identify your anchor and if you’re an overachiever, yes, find more than one.

Use Empathy, Not Sympathy

Over-achieving leaders tend to struggle with empathy and sympathy. They’d never dream of sympathizing with an employee about to be terminated. After all, the belief is if the employee wanted to keep their job, he or she would make the requested changes. Even so, sympathizing would mean a leader literally shares the emotions of the employee in question. If she cries, the leader would, too. If she’s scared, the leader would express fear, as well. Both seem preposterous options in this situation. Both serve as an emotional vacuum sucking in the leader and causing him or her to retract the previously stated consequence. Sympathy is not a solution to leading sucky conversations. Empathy, however, will make them easier, if it’s well managed. Empathy is conveying an understanding of how it must feel to be in another person’s shoes. It’s found in phrases like, “if I were in your position, I would feel the same” or “I can truly imagine how hard this must be and I feel for you.” And while over-achievers are those who can barely spell empathy, much less provide it, it is they who need to use this skill the most in tough times and difficult conversations.

Leave You on Your List

When an excavator runs out of gas, the engine sputters and jars to a stop. The vacuum stops sucking, and the wheels quit moving, grinding to a halt. Similar outcomes occur when a part goes bad, oil runs low, or there’s a broken hose. If only there were a “check engine” dashboard on humans. When leading in prolonged tough situations or with employees who seem gifted at sharing their attitude or resistance, the drain on a leader is palpable, but most just keep going. When everything seems to suck, you continuing to lead is imperative. This also means you stay on your own list of priorities, much like you must perform regular truck maintenance if you want them to keep running. Take a break after that painful budget meeting. Go through the drive-through and stop checking email for 10 minutes following your CFO’s next quarter revenue projections. Leave the office earlier than usual and kick the ball around with the pups or the kiddos after you’ve had to release great people from your workforce. The goal is not to ignore your feelings, nor to stick them in some box or compartment and spin that box to the back as if your brain were a lazy Susan. The goal is to recognize that these times for leaders are a strain and drain, too, and that if no one is going to lift you back up, you’ve got to be the one to do it. The challenge if often permission. So, as of this moment, in reading this article, consider yourself having been granted permission to leave YOU on your list of what needs to get done and rewarded and given a break when thing start particularly sucking.


Monica Wofford, CSP is a leadership development specialist, keynote speaker, and executive coach. For more information on her books, training firm or coaching services, call 1-866- 382-0121, or go to www.ContagiousCompanies.com.


THIS COLUMN EXPLORES TIPS AND TECHNIQUES TO IMPROVE YOUR ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE WITH CO-WORKERS, CUSTOMERS AND INDUSTRY STAKEHOLDERS.

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