Good Leadership Shows Best in Tough Times: A Lesson from Working with my Boss During the Asian Financial Crisis
We often talk about our leaders whether it be with reference to an organization, business, social group or political party. We may admire them if they enliven the culture and stimulate growth. What makes for such a leader? Their experience, achievements, agility, values, vision, integrity, intensity of focus etc? What if the leader can be all of these things, when times are good and, something else in times of adversity?
Adversity can come in many shapes and forms – expected or unexpected. My particular leadership story relates to the Asian financial crisis. It has helped me become a better leader.
I was fortunate enough to work for a well-known international company in the hospitality industry. I was head of a team of 20 accountants and reported directly to the Group CFO.
The company ran smoothly through the period I call “the good times”. Our roles were clearly defined and we operated within a supportive environment.
The CFO was a shining example of a good leader: His standards of performance were clear and consistent and he always backed his direct reports. He helped me to help others through patience, care and support. My subordinators never hesitated to approach me for help or guidance and I never felt the need to peer over their shoulders to check on their work because I trusted them.
To sum up, during “the good times”, everyone was happy and productive and the manager was delighted that our department had become more efficient and collaborative.
Then, suddenly, the Asian financial crisis hit. One day we were informed that the investors could no longer fund the business and that the company would be closed down. We all had to go, including the CFO.
At this very hard time for everyone, my boss demonstrated his leadership in two key ways:
- He had the ability to set goals, organize efforts, provide corrective feedback and set the general focus of efforts. He worked many late nights to cover some vital tasks, including the presentation a new feasibility study including proposals for prospective investors. At the same time, he had to complete the final financial statements for the Board and the relevant authorities to effect closure. He delegated some tasks to my team. We trusted his judgement implicitly. We worked willingly and long into the night. We shared a common purpose and overcame many obstacles.
- My boss recognized the importance of people management through communication, motivation and encouragement. He had the ability to set the emotional tone of the workplace during this very stressful period. He was open and honest with us about the gravity of the situation. For example, when he discovered that a potential new investor was no longer interested in our company, he communicated the bad news very clearly and directly, explaining that all of us, including him, would need to seek alternative employment. Nevertheless, he ceaselessly encouraged us to improve our skills and do our best until the very last day when, at last, the final stock take was complete. He explained that all we had been through together would help us grow as people, especially getting through those times when we felt it was all so pointless. His energy, enthusiasm, openness and sense of humor helped us recognise that so much can be learned in adversity.
In conclusion, the key to effective leadership is the recognition that a leader is a role model. In my story, my boss set the tone. He was confident and optimistic. He was not afraid to tell us the painful truth. We, his followers, learned to behave the same way.
The lesson is to draw upon our personal qualities, as much as upon our professional experience, in our determination to transform “the bad times” into a series of enriching experiences that our colleagues will remember for the rest of their lives.
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