14 Ways To Be A Better Leader in Hard Times

Picture of Ken Larson

Ken Larson

Most people can be fine leaders during good times but when times get tough the way you evolve as a leader will determine if your business grows or plummets. When everything is going your way, motivating your team is as easy as telling them the truth about how well they’re doing. Being a good leader during difficult times is an entirely different story. That’s when your ability to lead is put to the test. You find out whether you can actually keep your team focused, motivated, and productive to best turn things around. 

You can learn to be a better leader no matter what kind of situation you’re facing. With the right mindset and approach, you can guide your team through anything that comes your way. Keep reading to discover 14 tactics that will help you become the best leader you can be, even during difficult times. 

1. Get Selfish

As most airline safety briefings say: “Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” 

You can’t help anyone else if you don’t care for yourself. This is true whether you’re on a plane that’s facing problems or you’re managing a team during difficult times. If you want to be in the best position to lead your troops, you have to take care of yourself first.

Most people, leaders especially, want to take care of everybody else. They want to take care of family, friends, finances, businesses, teams, and people. We give, give, give, and we forget. We ignore that if we’re not in good health, we can’t truly take care of everything else in our lives with high-quality attention. So be “appropriately selfish” and put yourself first, so you can take care of everyone else, too.

2. Touch Everyone

As a leader, it can be tempting to try to do everything yourself. However, your responsibility isn’t to do your team’s work for them. Instead, you’re supposed to be supporting your team while they do their jobs. Especially during tough times, you need to get and stay in touch with all internal and external stakeholders.

Leaders often need more frequent points of contact, especially since many of us are locked into the Zoom world. It’s not necessarily relationship building, though. It’s about maintaining touchpoints and staying aware of each stakeholder’s situation so you can stay on top of things. Take the time to reach out to every stakeholder and ask, “How’s it going?” This can be a critical tool for understanding how to be the leader they need.

3. Shut Up and Listen

Everyone needs to feel seen, heard, and understood. As a leader, you can make that happen by listening far more than you speak.

Way too many leaders, especially fast talkers (and thinkers), are too quick to speak. They interrupt their team with their own opinions and fail to understand what they’re saying. You need to listen twice as much more as you speak. Once you listen, paraphrase what you’ve heard to establish clarity. When your leader says “you got it and get me”, you know you’ve made a huge deposit into that person’s trust bank account.

That’s powerful for the person you’re speaking with. They receive the boost of knowing that their leader actually listened to them. Meanwhile, you’ve made sure that any opinions or guidance you offer are relevant to the situation. 

4. Be the Dumb One

The goal of every leader should be to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you are. When you’re sitting in the room with your leadership team, you should want to be the dumbest person there, relatively speaking, of course. 

Why? Because every member of your team should have an area of expertise that you don’t. More importantly, they should complement each other’s skills. That kind of team is prepared to handle any situation. When you’ve built a genuinely versatile team, everyone in the room will be smarter than you in one way or another. If you’re the dumbest one in the room, that means you’re doing your job as a leader well.

5. Stop Motivating

Motivation is dead. Instead of using brute-force motivation, start inspiring. That’s the antithesis of what people think when they hear motivation is dead. You can think of it this way: Motivation is temporary, but inspiration is permanent

I can affect anybody’s motivation – but only for a very short period of time. Sure, I could throw money at them, sure, I could throw a purpose at them, sure, I can throw a bunch of plans at them. People are motivated by what helps them reach the next level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Money helps people achieve the first two levels of the hierarchy: physiological and safety needs like paying their rent. Pep talks and external validation help them achieve a sense of belonging and esteem. However, motivation decreases once these needs are met. If your employees feel reasonably comfortable, more money or pep talks will not give them extra motivation.

That’s where inspiration comes in. When you give your team a greater purpose to attach themselves to, autonomy to do their jobs, and the opportunity to grow and improve, you will inspire them. These will increase their desire to do the work, providing internal motivation and lasting inspiration that will last much longer than a raise or a pep talk.

6. Be the Rock

Be your team’s foundation for success by living your and the company’s core values and principles consistently. Be the person who holds everything up. Be Hercules!

It’s not easy to be the person who establishes the foundation for the organization, but they are the solid rock that everybody can count on when times are tough. But if you’re the leader, that’s your job. To do that, you need to act with integrity and demonstrate the company’s core values, and your own… consistently. 

When you can do that over and over and over again, you earn trust. When people trust you, they’re more willing to put in the work and follow your example even in tough times. You’ll create good work, and allegiance.

7. Get Personal

As a leader, you’re not just responsible for your team when they’re on the clock. You can’t separate a worker from their life. That’s why when I call up one of my reports, the first thing I ask about is their health and their family.

Most direct reports are shocked when a leader shows that kind of concern. But if you start getting personal and caring about the person during tough times, they feel a little bit of relief in the conversation knowing that you care. This builds loyalty and relieves some of their stress, encouraging them to keep doing their best work.

Sometimes you’ll find a person that just needed to have someone listen to them (see Point #3).

8. Walk Tall

The phrase “walk tall” means having confidence, believing in where you’re going, and standing up for what matters most. When you walk tall, you’re confident in your plans, goals, and values, and you’re less likely to get distracted or lose sight of the finish line.

Just as importantly, walking tall helps you learn to say no to what doesn’t matter. Too many leaders and employees say yes to everything. Consequently, they can’t do anything well. 

Walk tall and narrow your focus to what really matters. Will a new initiative help support your goals? Will the time and effort it takes detract from other core tasks? If something doesn’t support your team’s goals and need, or if it will take more than it returns, you can and should say no to it. That focus allows you to say yes to future opportunities that will make a difference.

You can only say no to something when you have a burning yes inside!

9. Look Forward

As a leader, you’re responsible for your troops’ vision for the future. If you want to be a better leader, look forward to creating a clear, exciting vision that your troops can buy into.

This comes back to inspiration. Everybody out there, especially younger people, needs to feel like they’re part of something bigger than them. They need to be attached to a purpose. A clear and exciting vision of the future can give them that purpose. 

For example, the Winspear Centre in Edmonton’s purpose is to “make and share music for everyone”. The people at the Winspear Centre love that because they’re all musicians and they understand the importance of music in our society. They have the kind of cohesive excitement that every team should have. When you help your team look forward, you can get them to think, “You know what, this matters.” That’s true inspiration.

10. Jump High

Every situation has two faces: a challenge and an opportunity. You usually enter new circumstances seeing the challenge because people tend to focus on the negative. That’s when I say… flip the coin!

Coaches help leaders flip that obstacle or challenge over to figure out the opportunity. That’s when we need to be able to jump high. When you can jump over problems, you can turn them into opportunities. Identify the problem, then figure out a solution to jump into the opportunity on the other side of the coin.

11. Go in Circles

People usually use the phrase “going in circles” to mean they’re wasting time and retreading the same ground. However, you can go in circles in a positive manner. Think of it as a spiral: You’re traveling in circles, but with every rotation, you’re advancing. That’s why you should go in circles continuously reviewing, revising, and refining all systems, processes and tools. 

Those three R’s are all critical. We review, we revise, and we refine. A consistent review process helps make your systems and processes more dynamic. You can spot things that aren’t working and fix them. You can refine processes to reduce wasted time. By performing reviews monthly or quarterly, you go in circles, but you’re constantly growing and improving. 

12. Be an Entertainer

No, you don’t need to become a class clown. Instead, you need to entertain all options, alternatives, and ideas presented to you. Be open to everything.

When you’re willing to entertain your team’s ideas, you can get a better understanding of their approach as well as the options you have to get things done. As a result, you can make better decisions, and you’re less likely to miss an opportunity for improvement.

13. Be the Coach

This tip is both easy and hard. Executive coaches ask many leaders whether their team is nothing but A-level players or whether they have some B-level or C-level people. The answer is almost always, “Yeah, we have some C’s.” What do they do about it? Most leaders say they’re just tolerating it. 

As a leader, you get what you tolerate. However, you can go through a whole coaching process to help you build and cultivate a high-performing A-team that lets them follow #4 above and be the dumb one in the room. 

It’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do. The old phrase is “hire slow, fire fast,” and that’s key to building a genuine A team. However, leaders can get too emotionally attached to people. 

Suppose you’ve had someone working for you for 20 years. They’re friendly and were great at their original job description, but the role changed over the years, and they no longer perform well at their current responsibilities. In that case, you have two options: Coach the person up, or coach them out. If you just tolerate their C-level performance, you’re going to have a C-level team… forever. 

14. Flex Your Muscles

You have power as a leader. You can decide how you use your structure, systems, processes, tools, and people. Flex your muscles and make those decisions instead of just letting things hang out in a holding pattern. 

For example, if you have a C-level team member, you can flex your muscles by deciding to rearrange your team. If your C-level person was great before their role changed, look for ways you can get them back in a position where their A-level skills shine. That may mean moving an A-level person around, too. However, if that’s what’s best for your team and your goals, it’s your responsibility as a leader to do it.

Become the Best Leader You Can Be

Your team deserves a leader who has the skills to guide them through good times and bad. With the right approach, you can become that leader and keep your company on track no matter what comes up. Personalized executive coaching from Champion Performance Systems can help you develop a more effective leadership style and guide your team through anything.

Champion is one of the top executive coaching firms in Canada. A top executive coach will support and guide you as you develop your executive leadership skills further. You can schedule a free 30-minute meeting to explore how professional executive coaching can make you a more effective leader today. 

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