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Leadership in Tough Times

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Leadership in Tough Times


Times are getting tougher.  Most of us are not the top person in leading our organization; we are line supervisors and middle managers; but it's still getting tougher.  While we don't make the big decisions we have a responsibility to provide leadership for our organizations and for our followers.  Indeed, if enough of us in the ranks make small adjustments the cumulative effect on our organizations may forestall the sweeping cut-backs coming from the top.  We have a responsibility to act and here are five cards you can play:


Get Your Head on Straight


If you are anxious and unsure about the future you are definitely going to communicate that to your followers.  First and foremost, get your personal house in order.  Recognize that you have personally, somehow, survived past instances of impending doom.  Okay, I am 49 years old I made a list of the doomsday stuff I somehow survived: Cuban Missile Crisis (even at four years old I recall my parents being pretty wacked out); gasoline shortages (remember odd and even days of buying gas?); hyper inflation of the 70s; Savings and Loan Crash of the 1980s; divorce (enough said); death of my parents; children being deployed to a combat zone; retirement from civil service - do I need to go on?  What does your list look like?  What have your survived?  You are a lot tougher than you think and so are your followers.


Look at your organizations mission, vision and values.  Why are you doing what you do?  What is fulfilling about your work, your organization and your followers?  The point of getting your own head on straight is to put todays events in perspective.  Perspective will give you the confidence to lead through the problems and what you will communicate to your followers is an informed confidence - not a Polly Anna view - an informed confidence that we can make it through to the other side.


Recognize Your Followers Difficulties


It's not just their jobs they are concerned about.  They may be anxious about their personal futures: foreclosure; credit; children; parents - they have their own lists of anxieties, difficulties and challenges.  Like you, your followers need to get their head on straight.  But, it's your job as the leader to assist them.  If you are fortunate enough to have any employee assistance program at your workplace, pick up the telephone and become familiar with their services.  If not, as you talk with your followers, create a file of the resources they have used to overcome their challenges.


Find different ways to disseminate information on solving personal problems.  As an example, at staff meetings take sometime to talk, generally, about the problems your followers may face and the resources and services available to assist them.  Just as importantly, talk about your organizations mission, vision and values.  By giving them assistance with their potential personal problems and re-focusing followers on mission, vision and values you can instill informed confidence in them.


Cut the Creep


Mission creep is a relative new term defining a very old human problem.  Generally, it is the expansion of activities beyond an organization's stated goals. Sometimes mission creep occurs because we did not understand the nature of the original goal.  As we worked toward obtaining a goal, we found there were other obstacles and challenges that need to be resolved.  Instead of re-evaluating the goal, we do more and more until we lose sight of the original goal.  In other instances, mission creep occurs during good times and following success.  We take on more because we can. 


If you are going to have to cut-back in your shop, use your mission, values and organizational vision as a lens to examine workplace activities.  What do you do that definitely adds value to your organization?  What do you now do as a result of actually trying to do something else?  What did you add during successful times that are not part of your shops original function?  In other words, if you have to cut - look to cut mission creep.


Small Efficiencies


This article is about the potential cumulative impact of line supervisors and middle managers.  You are unlikely to be in a position to make huge changes, but you can very likely make small ones.  Added together, small efficiencies can make huge changes.  So, here's the question:  What can you do a little bit better?  A small reduction in the use of inputs or a small increase in the production of outputs is your goal. 


The first benefit is obvious - if enough of an organizations leaders create small efficiencies, the organization likely experiences a larger increase in efficiency.  The second benefit is much less obvious - you (and your followers) can gain a measure of control during a time when it seems things are outside of your control.   Gaining a measure of control can reduce anxiety.  You can probably see the cycle here - getting your head back in the game can focus you on your original goals; using your original goals to create small efficiencies gives you a measure of control; a measure of control gets your head further back into the game, and so on.


People not Stuff


If you have to make choices between people and stuff - default to people.  Any technology your organization buys depreciates.  It has less value over time.  It gets old, it breaks, it needs updates or it is replaced by version 2.0. And, any purchase you have not yet made does not have tangible costs associated with it.  You can speculate all you want on how a technology will make you more efficient, but until you purchase it, it hasn't cost you anything or made you anything (leave your arguments about competition aside for a moment). 


On the other hand, every employee is a sunk cost.  You spent money hiring, training and inculcating them.   More importantly, almost always, employees increase in value.  They learn new skills, acquire organizational memory, etc.  Employees appreciate, stuff depreciates.  If you have to make a tough choice, default to people.



Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA is the author of several law enforcement related books including Leadership: Texas Hold 'em Style.  He can be reached through his website at

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