How Leaders Lead in Tough Times

Four traits for a new generation of management.

by Rick Telberg

If you’re feeling a little shell-shocked from this recession, you’re not alone.

All across the nation, accounting and finance professionals are dealing with the emotional fallout of cutbacks and layoffs, diminished expectations and dashed dreams. If this recession has been about anything, it’s been about failed institutions and failed systems.

But most of all – according to Rex Gatto, Ph.D., a workplace psychologist with a specialty in accounting firms – it has been about failed leadership. Powerful leaders have failed greatly – from Enron to Bear Stearns, Gatto told me.

It will take a new prescription to move forward, according to Gatto. But eventually, people will, indeed, move forward. And it will require a new kind of leadership.

Gatto says that a leader today must be a “beacon” of hope and clarity. New leaders, Gatto told me in a follow-up e-mail, will need to be at least four things in the coming months:”True leaders,” Gatto says, “can be identified through their behaviors of listening, communicating, taking action, understanding the economic drivers and creating organizational passion. They understand the passion of people, they instill passion in people and they help organizations identify what their greatest strengths are.”

1. Leaders of hope. They must be visible, and must explain to people how to get through this crisis. They will have to be frank, transparent in their dealings and creative. It is essential to help people understand that, while this is devastating, there is still a direction and a strategy of hope to survive.

2. Leaders need to be communicators. They must be able to over share information, to go up and down through various levels within their organizations and communicate a message of direction, economic success and business success. They will be required to help all levels of employees understand what the goals are for the next three to six months, what the possibilities are within a year and what people will be doing, specifically by product and service. They will have to help people to know who will be involved, how the organization will be altered, how people will work together and how consolidated jobs will be created and measured.

3. Effective leaders will need to build an organizational strategy for approximately six months, beginning today, and continuing next week and the week after, repeating the cycle every week. It is practical and realistic to focus on a six-month period of time, indicating that these are the kinds of things that have to be done today and for the next six months. If accomplished, success will ensue.

4. Leaders need to be specific about helping people to know how they will be evaluated and how success is measured. They need to be able to communicate the what, who, when and how of doing, and that the successes will be continually measured. People should put SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-bound) goals in place, making very specific, measureable actions so that it will be evident as to whether they are on the track to success or not. Leaders must have the leeway to go back and rethink in a very practical perspective what must be done now and how it must be accomplished.

Today accounting firms and finance organization are being restructured and re-conceived, consolidated, merged and re-formed.

“Through this rebirth of organizations,” Gatto says, “leaders have a great opportunity to go back and find out what their greatest strengths are, communicate them daily, instill the confidence of strength in people and lead people to utilize those organizational strengths to success.”