Leadership and Sustainability in Uncertain and
Unstable Times

by Dan Schneider


All of a sudden, some of the best and the brightest of America’s corporate leaders seem stuck in reverse, at worst, or in neutral, at best.  Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, Washington Mutual and many others have or soon will become paragraphs and footnotes in the history books.  Seduced by the shadows of Wall Street, the leaders of these and other companies depended upon business models that have proved problematic.  Could different leadership styles have kept them viable?

The failure of their feedback mechanisms led to embarrassing comments.  For example, just days before Warren Buffet sent him a $3,000,000,000 care package (that’s three billion U.S. dollars), GE’s Jeffrey Immelt told an analyst asking about a need for capital infusion that “We just don’t see it right now.”

As Francesco Guerrera noted in the Financial Times column of October4/October 5, 2008, the “I wish I hadn’t said that” comments “show that some of corporate America’s most respected and best-paid leaders are stuck in the past and unable to understand that this crisis has changed their role.”  The changing role began sooner than a few weeks or a few months ago. 

So why are some leaders still stuck in business models that no longer reflect the ever accelerating pace of change?  They continue to drive their organizations with one foot on the brakes and the other on the accelerator, lurching from one shadow to another.  In the extreme cases, we have a total eclipse of the sun.

Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

First, let’s agree that there is no one, right way to lead.  We believe that some leaders are born and some are made.  What we believe quite strongly is that all leaders can change their behavior if they are willing to move out of comfort zones that trigger leadership habits.  Some of these habits are like chains:  they are so weak they cannot be felt until they become so strong it seems impossible to break them.

Our research and assessment experience shows that there are at least five primary leadership styles; and each of those has some secondary attributes that influence how each of us leads.  Here’s the nutshell version of the primary leadership styles.

Some of us are Authoritative and Decisive.  Very results focused, very analytical, very driven, and very competitive.  In the absence of a clear business reason to “win”, we will engage others even if the only satisfaction is to claim “victory” at the end of the day.  Our favorite exhortation to others is “Follow me.”

Some of us are Persuasive and Inspirational.   We like to bring people around to our way of thinking through reason or emotion.  We tend to focus more on big picture than on detail, and we like to leave our communications open enough for people to read between the lines.  Our favorite two words are “Trust me.”

Some of us are Conservators.  We believe we’ve been given responsibility for certain resources such as people, time, and money.  Our job is to make the best possible use of those resources and provide, over time, an acceptable rate of return on investment.   This leader usually takes a “Wait and See”  approach to most situations.

Some of us are Procedural and Traditional.  Our way is more than “a” way; it is “the” way.  Prone to micromanagement, these leaders often show an unusually high rate of resistance to change.  Most of them must be right, and they often exhibit a “Show me” approach when challenged by a different approach to move away from the tried and true.

Finally, some of us are Flexible and Adaptable.  Sometimes that happens because we inherited the right leadership genes.  Sometimes it happens because we’ve been able to combine knowledge and experience, and we’ve acquired some wisdom.

What Works Today

In today’s unsettled environment, the Flexible and Adaptable leader certainly has an advantage over the others.  S/he can move in and out of all four of the other styles based on the circumstances, which include the economy and the shareholder/stakeholder interests, as well as the talents and skills of the supporting staff.

While this kind of flexibility and adaptability may be natural for some of us, many of us have to learn it.  That means we have to get outside of our comfort zone and move toward the emotional/rational  perspective of the people we are leading.  Research suggests that most people are emotional decision makers who later rationalize their decisions.  Said differently, most of us are more rationalizing that we are rational. 

As a result we have to put systems and procedures in place that guard against rapidly made, highly intuitive decisions.  We have to use a “feel, felt, and found” approach that legitimizes the emotional reactions of our followers before giving them the “logic” behind our decisions and recommended actions.  That simple step can move organizations from a culture of stolid (and sometimes malicious) compliance to a culture of commitment or engagement.  A culture that shows uncanny ability to respond easily and quickly to changing circumstances – the facile culture.

The Recipe for Change

If you want to create and lead a facile culture, we suggest you follow these simple steps.  We acknowledge on the front end that “simple” and “easy” are not synonyms, so you should expect that this will be work and will probably require moving out of your comfort zone.

  •  Assess what is going on with your organization.  Are you in a sudden spurt (growth/decline)?  Are you faced with a sudden crisis?  As a result of merger or acquisition, are you dealing with a blended culture?  Are you experiencing smooth sailing?

  • Do you have the right people doing the right things the right way the right number of times?  If your answer to any one of these questions is “no”, then you as leader need to do something different.

  • Use behavioral assessments or some form of review process to identify and understand which of the five primary leadership styles is most natural for you.  Almost all behavior is learned.  You can learn to do things differently.

Moving you and your organization out of comfort zones is critical for survival.  To be most effective, remember these three ideas:

  • Conditions should not be taken personally;
  • The circumstances that unfolding before your eyes are not pervasive; and,
  • Things change.
We humans are built to adjust and adapt.  If we are to be effective leaders, we need to get on with it.

The Author

Dan Schneider

Dan Schneider is a Partner/Director of The Rawls Group.  He and his colleagues work with families and organizations to design, build, and implement emotional and logical relationship systems and processes that increase human and financial capital and stakeholder value.  For additional information, contact him directly at 641-891-5863 or through The Rawls Group at 407-578-4455. www.seekingsuccession.com

Many more articles in The HR Refresher in The CEO Refresher Archives

Copyright 2008 by
Dan Schneider. All rights reserved.

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