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June 19, 2012

How Great Leaders Thrive in Tough Times

By David Mammano, an EO Western New York and CEO and founder of NextStepU.

Chester Arthur, who served as President of the United States from 1881 to 1885, will never be regarded as one of America’s great leaders. In fact, many Americans would be hard pressed to identify him as one of our presidents!

Arthur, who served after President Garfield’s assassination, may well have possessed the basic qualities of a great leader. However, the time of his presidency was fairly stable, so he was never called upon to step up. What have I learned from President Garfield and my years of business? It’s simple: tough times breed great leaders.

If you look at many of the famous leaders throughout history, you’ll notice they became famous because they navigated through seemingly impossible times. They held the flashlight at the end of the tunnel. Legendary leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and Franklin Delano Roosevelt come to mind. All historical figures were faced with incredibly complex or catastrophic situations. Instead of cowering in indecision, they reacted boldly and aggressively. They threw conventional wisdom out the window and developed their own playbooks on the spot.

So what does this have to do with entrepreneurs? I’ve discovered that being a good leader is all about being able to rise to the occasion during difficult times. It’s the ability to step up, fight for your employees and prepare for the future. I have been faced with several instances where my flight or fight thinking kicked in, and while it seems very hard to brave the difficulty, it’s important to tackle it head on.

A good example is the recent state of the global economy. A lot of people are talking about recessions, tax increases, falling stocks and other points of importance. What is a business leader to do? The reflexive action is to take a hatchet to the budget, impose layoffs and halt all plans for growth. These steps are relatively easy to take, so leadership skills rarely come into play. And often, I’ve found, they are exactly the wrong things to do.

Great leaders know that only dead fish swim with the current. So they work harder to get through trying times, searching for more creative solutions and inspiring their coworkers to stay engaged. They also take some time to pause and think, because they know that they shouldn’t react impulsively. Only after careful consideration and preparation do they act.

How am I trying to live up to this leadership ideal? It’s a mammoth undertaking, but it’s worth it if it means I can keep my staff and company on the path toward continued success. When it comes to something like a struggling economy, here are the steps I take when the going gets tough:

  1. I ask my coworkers to help me look at our expenses and figure out where we can cut. Engaging the staff in this process is crucial. They need to understand that it’s a time for sacrifice, and they’ll be happy to be part of the process if I let them.
  2. I look for new opportunities that arise from the problems we’re facing. For example, new trends or market needs that will rise up because of the hard times.I enhance customer service to make sure the people who already love what we do don’t slip away. It might be hard to find a lot of new business during a recession, for instance, so we need to work even harder to convince our current customers to sit tight.
  3. I do more marketing, not less. Many companies reflexively shut off their advertising efforts during tough times. I’d rather shut off the water supply than my marketing. With fewer customers in the market, we need to fight even harder for those that remain! Plus, if my competitors stop advertising, I’ll get more bang for my buck in the ad market. And if the market is less cluttered, our marketing efforts stand a better chance of getting noticed.

All in all, I try not to get depressed about the tough times ahead. No one said running a business would be easy, and things will always get better in time. I try to stay patient, remain excited about my business and view tough times as an opportunity to test my skills as a leader.

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