Leadership Perspectives

Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm; Rough seas require transformative leadership

“I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a ‘transformer,’ in any situation, any organization.  Such an individual is yeast that can leaven an entire loaf.  It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith to be a transforming leader.”  Stephen R.  Covey, from Principle-Centered Leadership.

When I do workshops and speaking engagements on the topic of leadership effectiveness, someone in the audience almost always asks if it’s not easier to be a transforming leader when there aren’t already a lot of problems to deal with in the organization.  People word the question differently, but it’s always some version of “Isn’t it easier to be a great leader when you aren’t up to your neck in alligators?”

The folks asking the question often feel challenged by tight budgets, limited resources, and coworkers that don’t meet their personal standards.  They think that if they had more staff, better IT systems, or smarter employees, somehow they could rise to the occasion and demonstrate greater creative leadership competency.

But it doesn’t work that way.  Great leadership is not a product of perfect circumstances.  Great leadership is required precisely because circumstances are seldom perfect.  It is when organizations find themselves the most beleaguered that they require leadership that is self-aware and composed, goal focused and decisive, and collaborative and compassionate.

Leaders who consistently find that they are foiled by circumstances – difficult employees, unreasonable deadlines, or unworkable systems – should look toward themselves.  They may not have caused the problems, but they have the power to meet and resolve the challenges.  Leaders can only meet the challenges of difficult circumstances by reaching down deep within themselves and bringing to bear their best and strongest leadership competencies.

To say that it is easier to be a leader in a high functioning, high achieving organization where everyone already works cooperatively and collaboratively, is a bit like saying it is easier to be a doctor when the patients are already healthy or a landscaper when the lawn is already beautiful.  People need doctors most when they are sick and landscapers when their lawns need work.  Organizations need strong competent resourceful leaders when the organizational challenges are great.

Many years ago, when I was hired to do a particularly snarly turnaround, a colleague gave me a print with a famous quote by Publilius Syrus.  It hung above my desk for many years, and I am reminded of it now:

It read, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”

Remember Rudy Guiliani after 9/11?  No leader ever faced more challenging circumstances.  Out of an eight year career as mayor of New York City, Guiliani will be most remembered for the grace and courage that he showed during that devastating crisis.

Indeed, anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, but rough seas require creative,  transformative leadership.

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