23 May 2010

Keeping calm under fire

Some of the leaders that I have admired most have had the ability to not only stay calm under stress, but continually be outright positive. And these leaders have been across all levels of an organization. Because they have been across all levels, I think this is more of a personality trait than something one necessarily acquires as they go up. However, I have no reason to believe that one cannot strive to be so, even if it does not come naturally.

Stress gets created when the observable results are at variance with what is desired. As organizational behavior will teach you, if that accountability comes without commensurate authority, that exacerbates the personal stress.

In today’s corporate environment (most of it at least), the demand for short term accountability is extremely high. The tolerance for failure – regardless of all high words of risk taking capability – is getting narrower and narrower. A lot of this is derived not necessarily from within the organization but the tough competitive environment and the fact that business is moving at lightning speed.

One unfortunate outcome is that when a perceived failure happens, the organization demands quick answers. Quick answers, no doubt, lead to simplistic conclusions. Add the tendency to arrive at simplistic conclusions and the above discussed tolerance for failure – and that leads to another dangerous behavior – finger pointing. This is derived from a deep rooted human tendency – “I am better than others; what I control performs better than something that I do not control.”

Finally, average human being finds it more convenient to name a person as the reason for failure than understand the true nuances of processes and constraints. First, it is easier, it is more convenient and it is something most people can relate to. Person A is an idiot – Ah! I get that. The complexity of understanding constraints – some written and some not written – some internal some external – that starts becoming too complex for us  This leads to a missed opportunity to drive true learnings for the organization.

Leaders have to be doubly vigilant not to fall into this pattern of behavior. Any organization learns quickly from the top. As human beings, we all want to be leaders. In reality, we all want to be led. We copy behavior from the top very fast – perhaps believing that compliance will lead to success. In the process, we amplify the behavior at the top.

Any sign of panic on the top and the dissonance in the org below – like a bunch of dispersed ants – is immediately visible. Any signs of finger pointing from the top and immediately the organization takes a cue.

A true leader needs to address issues from the position of poise and even handedness. A calming sense needs to pervade in the organization that is under stress. Giving the entire troop a sense of purpose that they are all in it together is of paramount importance. Regardless of the level of stress, they will need to stick together and emerge successful.

But above all be aware that this is just one more hurdle of many more to come in one’s career. Crossing hurdles require cool-headed thinking and an aura of positivity around oneself.

So how many such cool-headed leaders have you seen? I have been fortunate enough to see a few in my life.

Posted May 23, 2010 by Rajib Roy in category "Reflections

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