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To hell and back again: Leading in troubled times

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Flaming handThere is no substitute for inspirational leaders, particularly when times are bad, Jack Welch told delegates to the recent Leaders in London conference. The conference brought together some of the world's biggest authorities on leadership and business, including Rudy Giuliani. Steve Roth, LeadershipZone managing editor, was there.






Prepare for the worst, Jack Welch told the assembled delegates to the recent Leaders in London Conference: the year ahead will be "brutal". If, at that point, anyone felt like saying a prayer, the venue - the Methodist Hall in Westminster - offered the perfect opportunity. But Welch also offered hope. Stick to the basics, he said - invest in your people, guard your cashflow, watch the competition, communicate "like hell" - and you just may ride out the storm.

Photo of Jack Welch"Your job is to be as open as humanly possible. And none of you has the right to be a manager if half the people in your organisation don't know where they stand."

Jack Welch, former chairman & CEO of GE

Inspirational leadership is THE management mantra of 2009. Suddenly inspirational leadership is all the rage. Has management risen to the challenge? Some people, such as Gary Hamel, visiting professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School and director of Management Lab are sceptical: "Everything is changing except management," he told delegates. But Welch disagrees: "Management is changing all around", he said. "The average tenure of a CEO is now four years. They are on the hot seat like never before".

The basis for good management stays the same: to produce short term earnings while investing for the future. "There are no new tasks in management, the old tasks still have to be done but with more effectiveness and done quicker. Any jerk can deliver now without investing for the future," said Welch.

Communication is key
Welch is a people person. He is famous for picking up the phone to GE employees to thank them for a good job, teaching classes at GE's Crotonville learning centre and spending half his time on developing talent. Time and time again during his address he drove the message home - communicate: "Your job is to be as open as humanly possible. And none of you has the right to be a manager if half the people in your organisation don't know where they stand." Where people are good - reward them, he added, and never be afraid to learn from others: "Go find someone in the company who is better than you," he said.

The message was further reinforced by Andy Cosslett, CEO of hotel chain, IHG. "Leadership is going to be the big difference in how companies come through the recession," he said. Managers should ask themselves: Am I still in touch with what is going on in the front line of my business; Is everyone in synch; What did I learn from Lord of the Rings and what about tomorrow?"

"The most important question is not, 'how important am I' but 'what don't I know', 'what am I not good at', 'what are my weaknesses and how do I balance my weakness with others?' You can't do anything by yourself as a leader."

Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor

Photo credit: Free Stock Photos

The first is fairly straightforward: become familiar with front line conditions and how you are seen by your customers and employees. The second involves defining the company's core purpose: where should you play and how do you know; where is the untapped value?

The third needs a little more explanation. It requires a lot of people working together to move a company quickly, said Cosslett. In times of trouble it is all too familiar to see leaders go to ground and disappear from public view. But to succeed a leader needs to be highly visible and encourage others to become involved. "To get engagement you have to move past the traditional employer/employee relationship," he told delegates. Among the engagement measures he recommended were awards for outstanding collaboration and fellowship groups.

There can be few harder places to prove yourself than the deck of a US Navy destroyer. But that was exactly the task that faced captain D. Michael Abrashoff, the former commander of USS Benfold, which he turned from the worst- into the best-performing ship in the US Pacific fleet. Abrashoff witnessed the crew cheer his predecessor off the ship - not because he was loved and admired, but because they were glad to see him go. He vowed that when he left, there would be a very different reaction.

He immediately set about using corporate leadership techniques to turn the ship around - encouraging his sailors to offer suggestions on better working, and offering on the spot rewards for good work. He also started after-action debriefs, in which crew were encouraged to give honest opinions and look for better ways of doing things. The results were startling. Most culture change methods assume it takes years to lead big change. Yet it took just seven months from Abrashoff's arrival as captain for the ship to win the Spokane trophy for the most combat-ready ship in the fleet. Not surprisingly, he left his command with the universal admiration of his crew.

There is perhaps one more testing environment than the US Navy. When the twin towers fell following a terrorist attack, it fell to the then New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani to lead the city out of crisis. Tough times test leaders, but it's when times get tough that the principles of leadership are best applied. At times during the crisis, says Giuliani, the only thing he had left to rely on was faith.

He has five basic principles to leadership: set your goals; be optimistic; have the courage to take a risk; teamwork; and communication. "The most important question is not, 'how important am I'", he told delegates, "but 'what don't I know', 'what am I not good at', 'what are my weaknesses' and 'how do I balance my weakness with others?' You can't do anything by yourself as a leader".


Steve Roth is the managing editor of Sift Media

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