Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Leadership in a Time of Panic

Volume: September 2015

By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com


A friend of mine is from Jamaica. One day we were talking about the ebb and flow of the shoreline in Jamaica. From year-to-year the width of Jamaica’s beaches change depending upon the hurricane season. My friend put it this way: “Ya mon, nature giveth and she taketh away.” The stock market is a lot like that – she gives, she takes. In fact, a great number of people worked themselves into a froth over the past week and sold-off their portfolios. Sociologists refer to this as collective behavior – when group dynamics cause individuals to behave irrationally without properly analyzing a situation.


Perhaps you have witnessed collective behavior in your work-world. It typically happens when a business is going through a downturn or a merger/acquisition. A communication outlet for collective behavior is the grapevine (i.e., gossip). It is the leader’s responsibility to minimize the grapevine and its negative effects. In fact, it is during times of panic that the true colors of leadership are shown. Some leaders shrink from the limelight, while others increase their visibility.


During a merger or business downturn there are typically an array of unknowns. Many leaders grow nervous when there are unknowns because they cannot see clearly. As a result, they limit their communications. Good leaders know that the future is rarely crystal-clear. During foggy, panicky times, leaders would be well-served to embrace a quote by Zig Ziglar: “Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you'll be able to see farther.” In other words, helping people through panicked times is a leadership process. There will not be absolute clarity. Thus, leading in turbulent times calls for leaders to break things down into manageable chucks. It also calls for excellent communication.


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Many leaders “clam up” (official consulting term) when they do not know all the answers. While these leaders search for answers, which will take time, their direct reports thirst for information. Since communication from their leader has gone dark, the mighty grapevine emerges. Filled with misinformation and conspiracy-theory, the grapevine crushes productivity. In addition, when employees do not hear anything from their leaders, they assume the worst.


The alternative to “going dark” is for leaders to increase their level of communication during tumultuous times. This calls for leaders to admit that there are some things they do not know – a tall order for some. Leadership does not mean that we always possess all the answers. Rather, leadership means that we will authentically communicate with our people and confidently lead them in the most positive direction possible. It is okay to tell our direct reports that we do not know something. Ultimately, we will know more. In addition, you do not have to promise that everything will be okay. All we have to state is that we will remain in integrity and communicate on the journey. The more leaders communicate, the better team members will be able to focus on the job at hand.


Going back to the stock market for a moment, Warren Buffet, a man who has done rather well with investments, often says: “I try to buy when everyone else is selling, and sell when everyone else is buying.” Easy advice to understand, yet very difficult to execute. The challenge with the execution is that it flies in the face of collective behavior. In other words, it takes discipline, patience, and confidence to lead and grow during a tumultuous time. Remember, when team members are engaging in collective behavior, leaders need to demonstrate patience, discipline, and above all, confidence.  


Bottom Line: During times of panic, use every ounce of your self-control to stay calm. Communicate frequently. Tell people what you know, and be authentic about what you don’t. When sharing direction, do it decisively. And remind people that their behavior will influence the outcome of the current situation.


Until next time, be well.        


Doug Van Dyke loves the beaches in Jamaica, as well as the advice of Zig Ziglar and Warren Buffet. He is also a Tampa Bay based executive coach, leadership development expert, and strategic planner. To learn more about leadership development programs, coaching, strategic planning, and consulting services, visit www.leadershipsimplified.com or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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