An Option for Tough Times
by Steven C. Coats


Business cycles go through ups and downs and the US seems to be in the throes of some difficult economic times right now.  Companies in many industries are struggling more than usual, and there is a bubbling cauldron of confusion, with the subprime loan mess, skyrocketing oil prices, a weakened dollar, and election year uncertainty just some of the ingredients having been tossed into the pot.  It is tough out there today, and even many of our blue-chip clients are feeling the pinch.

As difficult as they may be financially, these times of struggle offer great opportunities for people to grow as leaders.  The Center for Creative Leadership and others have proven that hardships are clearly one of the most effective ways for people to develop more fully as leaders.  Hardships test us.  They allow us to demonstrate our mettle and grow tremendously.  Adversity does in fact reveal character, not build it. 

Strange things can happen to people during the hardship of tough times.  For one thing, they can become easily caught up in activities that just don’t seem right.  Activities might be corporate initiatives that are reactive and developed under great pressure and tight time constraints, instead of those which in better times, are more thoughtful and carefully crafted.  Sometimes those activities or demands seem to directly conflict with values.  For example, costs are cut so deeply that they negatively impact promised customer service levels or quality.  Or businesses take on “bad business,” in order to raise top line revenues.  Conflicting messages like these force people to wonder about whether “they are doing the right things,” which not only saps energy, but contributes to even more anxiety.

Confidence is also volatile during hardships.  People are facing something never faced before, with no clear paths to success.  They become emotionally raw, because their reputations and credibility are under scrutiny.  They want to look good – and deliver the results they have promised, but realize there are no easy answers.

People can lose confidence in themselves when their performance drops.  They will not trust in what they know to be right.  When confidence wanes, the message of “I cannot do this” starts playing louder in one’s head.  Add to that the real or imagined concern of potential layoffs, and you have people who, deep down, may be wondering more about their own chances of making it through the storm.

There is an antidotes to the malady brought on by tough times, and it is a healthy dose of Possibility Thinking.  Reflect on that concept for a moment.  Possibility thinking is about considering what could be vs. trying to predict what most likely will be.  Possibilities are aspirational; they provide hope and energy.

Possibility thinking allows people to discover new ways of doing work, and to create a stream of new ideas to attract new business.  It generates opportunities that have never been considered.  It provides a sense of control for combating the forces of gloom and doom.  It also provides the one asset that is most needed during difficult times, and that is an abundance of options for re-discovering prosperity.

Unfortunately, increased anxiety and faltering confidence thwart possibility thinking.  These factors block an individual’s ability to notice the unexpected, make eye-opening connections, or see the commonplace in an entirely new way, all of which contribute to creating new possibilities.  Worry and self-doubt too often cause people to become more focused on self-preservation, rather than innovation or creation.  

So how is your possibility thinking going these days?  What potential breakthroughs are being put forth to provide new and profitable growth opportunities where you are?  Do you sense a spirit of inventiveness around the place?  Do you see the energy and excitement that comes from people who truly believe they can wield some control and influence over their future?  Or do you see something the more closely resembles helplessness or despair?

If you are like many, you may be stuck looking only at possible ways to cut even more costs.  Quite frankly, you need to do better.  Cost management is surely important, but if it is your only option, you are not stepping up to your responsibility as a leader.  While probability analysis falls squarely into the domain of management, it is up to leaders to find ways to increase the number of possibilities that can be put into play.  

So, as you continue to feel the pinch of the current economy, remember that this difficult moment in time could also be your golden opportunity for greatness.  Be confident and determined to do what you know is needed.  And do not go another day without thoughtfully exploring and sharing ideas about exciting new possibilities.  This will enable you to start taking more control of your turnaround right now.


The Author

Steve Coats

Steven C. Coats is a Managing Partner at International Leadership Associates, a leadership education and consulting firm. Steve focuses his work on leadership and team development, personal growth, leading change, and business strategy. To learn more about International Leadership Associates, please visit .
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives

Copyright 2008 by
Steven C. Coats. All rights reserved.

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