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Leading Through Adversity

When you’re going through hell, keep going – and don’t let on that you’re panicking

By Tim McEwan, Leadership Specialist and Fellow in Management Practice at Cambridge Judge Business School

When the Soviet Union began to break up in the early 1990s, the Americans coined the acronym VUCA to describe the situation. It stood for:

  • Volatile
  • Uncertain
  • Chaotic
  • Ambiguous

It was a good way to describe how things felt during those times, though it feels even more accurate when applied to the state of world today, doesn’t it? A looming global recession, acute energy shortages across Europe which are about to get worse, rocketing oil and gas prices, the war in Ukraine, runaway inflation, rising interest rates beginning to threaten the viability of many mortgages. If ever there was a VUCA world, this is it. 

It’s easy to look at what’s going on and get distracted, worried, or upset. As current or aspiring business leaders, part of leading through adversity is about knowing how to move away from that. In fact, from my military background, there are two key principles we can apply to the business world that effective leaders should keep in mind.

Plan, prepare, and practice

During the 2020–2021 Vendée Globe non-stop around the world yacht race, the French sailor Kevin Escoffier was about 800 nautical miles off Cape Town when his yacht began to collapse and fold in on itself.

It sank in two minutes.

This race is for yachts crewed by just one person, so Escoffier was on his own. He had just 120 seconds to radio a message to his onshore team and get into his life raft with a grab bag of emergency rations and a personal AIS beacon which transmitted his position to rescue crews.

Escoffier survived, which was down to many factors. One of the main factors was that he was able to send a message, set up his life raft, and take all the emergency provisions he needed to survive, all in such a frighteningly short time window.

But Escoffier had planned for just such an emergency. He knew where his radio, grab bag, and beacon were – not to mention his life raft. He knew how to operate the raft. And he practiced his response.

Plan. Prepare. Practice.

These are the three Ps that can save your life when you’re in choppy waters. If you’re in choppy economic waters, you also need a plan. What could go wrong? How could it go wrong? How can you best react when it does?

No one wants to think about the worst happening, but if you don’t then you are only going to be more vulnerable.

In the UK military they have a defence protocol known as NBC. It stands for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical, and covers what to do and how to respond to attacks of this nature. Obviously no one wants to think about what would happen if attacked by these kinds of weapons, because the things that could happen to you are horrific. But, as the military knows all too well, if you’re going to put yourself in an environment where that might happen, you need to prepare and to practice.

“Train hard, fight easy,” as many in the military like to say. Make sure you and your team know what to do should the worst happen. You’ll be grateful you did.

Keep your head

Kipling as a writer has fallen out of favour a great deal in recent decades, but his best-known poem If still resonates with many:

If you can keep your head when all about you  

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,  

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;

Indeed, much as with the British national anthem, most people don’t know any more of the poem that these first four lines. For our purposes, that’s fine, since these four lines are the ones that resonate.

When things go wrong, you may want to scream, or cry, or punch the wall in frustration. You may have all kinds of feelings inside, and they are all valid. There are those who advocate for “authentic leadership” who will tell you that you should be honest with your people about how you’re feeling at all times. This, however, can be the wrong course of action.

Although authenticity in leadership definitely has a place, the time for sitting in circles sharing one’s feelings is not when the building is on fire.

Here’s another sailing story to illustrate what I mean. This one involves me, so I can tell you in no uncertain terms how it felt when captaining a yacht around the Mull of Kintyre through a patch of water with a strong tide during stormy weather.

As I’m writing this now, you can assume that the crew and I managed to get through the danger with no loss of life or even any injury. But I can also assure you that during the event, I was feeling seasick, panicky, and angry at myself for having led everyone else into that situation.

As a leader in business, when you’re in metaphorical stormy waters your people will look to you for their ques on how to behave. Well, that’s what happened to me sailing those literally stormy waters. The crew kept looking at me and asking if everything was alright. If, at that moment, I came clean and told them the danger we were in, and that I was crapping myself, all that would have done was make them crap themselves too and increased the chance of us coming to a sticky end.

The important thing at that moment was to project an aura of calm authority. Everything was fine, if we concentrated on the tasks we needed to do, I told them. Once we were back on land, I was first to admit that I had been scared, and that I had made some mistakes in taking us there. I showed them how I’d been feeling – but later, when it wouldn’t have a negative impact on their behaviours when I needed them to be focused and as calm as possible.

When times are tough, it’s good to be honest about the realities of the situation. Your people want to know what’s going on. They often want facts and figures and a bit of honesty. The important thing is how you tell them. If you’re flapping like a windsock, they will rightly have cause to worry. Only now they’re not just worried about a bad situation; they’re also worried about whether you’re the right person to lead them through it.

The important thing here, as so often in leadership, is context. There is a time to be honest. There are times when it’s appropriate to be emotionally honest too. But there are also times when you need to display confidence and project it onto your team. There are times when you have to inspire focus and calm, and you cannot do that if you show everyone that you’re panicking.

The truth is simple. When times are tough, you just have to keep on going. That’s where grit and resilience and determination are so valuable. The best way to get that from your team is to project it yourself, and at the very least that means keeping your head – even when, as Kipling said, “all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”