Executive Master of Leadership Blog

Leading in Difficult Times: Hugh Coppen

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 29, 2020 2:20:16 PM / by Hugh Coppen, President, Winning Leadership, Inc.

The massive uncertainty created by the present global Coronavirus turmoil impacts every workplace and every household in America. Many indicators point to an extended pandemic. And it’s a certainty that this will be one of those cathartic transitions which will have lasting consequences for years after it is all over.

For many people, news saturation results in a deer-in-the-headlights experience in which they become paralyzed by fear of the unknown and of the uncharted waters ahead. Who can blame them? There is no handbook to guide our way through this crisis. There are too many variables and wild cards.

Hugh Coppen 2019

Effective Leadership

It is at times like this that effective leadership becomes more critical than ever to the capacity of
the organization to operate. The aspects of leadership that matter most in difficult times are
among the behaviors and principles that the best leaders practice at all times. The difference is
that, in difficult times, they are the very linchpin of survival.


Of the many essential attributes and best practices of the most effective leaders, there are five
key behaviors that are paramount when times are tough. While these behaviors are drawn from
my professional experience in business, they have universal application.



1. Be calm, be clear, be smart

When things are difficult and the global environment is bleak and unpredictable, people inevitably lose confidence; they become easily distracted by the waves of bad news and they are increasingly uncertain about their own future. One of the most important tasks of the leader in these times is to remain composed and focused - calmness is what people want from their leader. Be pragmatic, be practical, be realistic. Be crystal clear on goals, adapt and implement your strategies and plans, and be true to your values. Make smart, hard-nosed risk assessments. In other words, exhibit a rock-steady hand on the helm in order avoid any erosion of the confidence that others have in you and in the organization.

2. Genuinely earn the trust of your people

The credibility you earn through maintaining composure and focus must be backed up by the trust you earn through the way you deal with your people, collectively and individually. You may be feeling highly stressed by the environment, but you cannot allow this to undermine your leadership behaviors. The need for communication now is greater than ever – like the virus itself, damaging rumors multiply in uncertain climates. Clear, honest, candid communication is the only salve for people’s fears. Your authenticity is their bedrock. Having compassion and empathy for the threats they perceive is just as important as recognizing, appreciating, rewarding and celebrating their accomplishments. Perhaps most important of all is the trust you earn by genuinely living your values and walking your own talk, all day, every day.

3. Be courageous

Many leaders talk about ‘the loneliness of leadership’. Seldom is that aloneness more present than in difficult times. Through turbulent times that seem bent on breaking them and tearing their worlds apart, these leaders feel as if they, and they alone, are carrying the entire burden of sustaining their operation. At the same time, they feel a deep responsibility for those they lead. This is where the leader’s courage is truly tested and tempered. Your people want to know that you are realistic about the threats we are facing - but if they see your fear, you lose them and, once that happens, your credibility as the leader is also lost. They expect you to make - and act on - the tough decisions necessary in the crisis. Procrastinating and avoiding taking on ‘the tough stuff’ not only puts the organization at risk but seriously damages your capacity to be effective. Reach out to fellow leaders in your network. Share your confidences with them. Now, more than ever, leaders need one another to help them survive.

4. Prudently manage ALL your resources

An organization’s success at any time is hugely dependent on optimizing output from every unit of input. In difficult times, the leader’s role in ensuring that every input is delivering maximum value is vital. Your people are your single most important resource. Plan to cover the most critical functions in case of widespread absenteeism from illness. If you haven’t already done so, start cross-training now in order to provide you with the bench strength you may need. Ensure that your procedures are up to date in case an untrained person has to step in. Manage every input: resources, energy utilized, people’s time and brainpower, where effort is applied, the deployment of tools, training, equipment and information, and more. You need to know where and how to cut back if you are forced to retrench. Ensure you know what your deliverables are and so that you can be clear about your priorities. Anticipate delays in receiving goods and services you need and make contingency plans to respond to shortfalls. The challenge is to manage every resource you have at your disposal in order to optimize your productivity during the crisis.

5. Never lose sight of your longer-term purpose 

Through all the trials and stresses of leading in difficult times, the leader is the one who can never lose sight of what the ultimate purpose of the operation is. Fulfilling that purpose may be more challenging than ever and, in the short term at least, just staying afloat may be the name of the game. But, even when all your priorities are focused on survival, hold on to your purpose. Keep it out there for others to see so they see survival each day as a stepping stone, not the endgame. Constantly emphasize the connection between your intense focus on productivity and making your operation smarter, leaner, faster, and better able to perform - and thus poised to succeed when the recovery kicks in. As you look to the future, challenge the way you do things now and ask yourself if it will still be the best way for what lies ahead in the post-crisis recovery. In short, resist the urge to ‘circle the wagons’ and simply hold on for dear life through the storm. Instead, look for smart innovations and initiatives that will equip you to be ahead of the curve when the dark clouds eventually clear away.


Final Thoughts

If you look back over the last few decades, it becomes apparent that most of the organizations that emerged from difficult times stronger and better equipped to succeed had one thing in common: leadership that put these five principles into practice during severely challenging times. The combination of people-focused leadership behaviors and smart utilization of resources is a proven formula to achieve not just survival through a crisis but long-term success beyond it.

And isn’t long term success the ultimate measure of truly effective leadership?



Hugh Coppen is President of Winning Leadership, Inc. He is a three-time CEO who specializes in leadership development, business process improvement and change management through consulting, workshops and executive coaching.


©2020 Hugh Coppen and Winning Leadership, Inc. May be reproduced with acknowledgement

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Topics: Leadership Skills, Communication, Listening

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