Managers face crucial new challenges in recession

September 10, 2009

martin-clarke- Dr Martin Clarke, Director of Leadership Development Programmes at Cranfield School of Management in the UK. The opinions expressed are his own. -

With an understandable focus on the short term demands of recession, the leaders’ role of generating debate about future priorities is never more crucial.  In difficult times the tendency to force decisions, to be seen to act, can often mean an organisation’s strategic assets can get thrown out with the bath water.

Leaders who can create space for informed discussion will not only ensure that tomorrow’s plans are well grounded but also provide the foundations for committed and engaged execution as the upturn begins to gain traction. Such strategic debate is predicated on two key leadership attributes.

First, it requires a well developed external perspective; a knowledge of what is going around your business, a facility that was apparently in short supply in Lehman Brothers. This extends beyond the occasional external contact and attendance at industry events. It demands disciplined attention on and engagement with diverse events, people and ideas that may well fall outside an executive’s comfort zone.

Secondly, it requires leaders who are capable of arguing through the morale dimension of business, not just in terms of “right sizing” but in considering the difficult challenges faced by the corporate survivors who are often asked to work more for less. This kind of debate is personally demanding, often requiring challenge when tolerance for the airing of differences can be seen as unproductive.

When will discussion about alternatives paralyse rather than enable debate? When is it OK to roll over and go along with the prevailing view (whilst quietly developing plan B)?

In the end, these questions raise a personal morale choice that sits at the heart of leadership, in recession or out of it: just how much of myself am I prepared to invest in the responsibilities of being a leader?

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