Entrepreneurs

The Only Place to Lead is From the Front

Whenever I hear phrases like, “when things return to normal,” or, “after this is all over,” I stop in my tracks. If those words come from a leader’s mouth, I worry. 

Yes, we’re dealing with a ton of disruption right now. Everything is changing, and if you’re not prepared to change right along with it, you could end up in a bad spot, if not now, then at some point down the line. But there is no end date for disruption. It’s not a matter of “making it through,” no. Instead, leaders at every level have to be prepared to lead their teams through times of change -; all the time.

It’s not easy. During periods of disruption, everyone worries. Great managers consider easier career choices. Customers question a company’s ethics, and whether or not they operate sustainably. Employees worry about their jobs, and rightly so.

I know how the disruption game is played. 

I was the CEO of the Chicago Tribune in 2008, which was an intense, extremely disruptive time in business, not just for a media company in need of digital transformation, but for any company with no choice but to do battle with economic forces.

There were literally times when I had to talk myself out of crawling under my desk to avoid the hard discussions we needed to have. Luckily for me, I never fell for the dubious and wholly inaccurate comfort in the trite reassurance that “this too shall pass.” Here’s a tip: It won’t. You’ve gotta do the work.

Disruptions are here to stay, and they will happen faster and faster as time goes on. When they happen leaders have to be prepared to lead from the front.

Leaders are often expected to remain confident in the midst of crisis and challenge. It’s in the job description that you must at least appear courageous regardless of what calamity may have fallen or be looming overhead. But that isn’t the same as acting like you’ve got it all figured out, or that you have no concerns -; that’s delusional and dishonest. Instead, leaders must instead know, and fully acknowledge the business threats inherent in disruption, and maintain your cool while you and your team build a plan.

“Good to Great” author Jim Collins was quite helpful in my efforts to lead from the front when he offered this plan of attack:

  • Get real about the facts. Go at it head-on, no matter how brutal the circumstances.

  • Share what you know with your employees. Trust me, they already know what’s going on, and being transparent about your findings will help you build the trust you need to execute a turnaround.

  • If you need to, upgrade your executive team. You need change agents.

  • Get everyone on the same page. Everyone on your team must decide if they’re “all-in” on the new plan or not.

  • Communicate more. I mean more than you ever have before. You almost can’t communicate too much.

  • Finally, build a plan. The plan should touch all facets of the business, including where you’re making “bets” on the future.

These points can help you to focus, develop a plan, act quickly, and those components are necessary to drive change. Inaction is akin to death, that’s why good leaders make bets on new ideas -; and on people.

The right people will lead the change effort, so keep your eyes open for those who are ready and willing to drive change, and put them in key roles. People who are decisive, collaborative, who enable and promote ideation and forward thinking, that’s who you should ask for recommendations on what to do and what not to do. Never be afraid to tap your team for insight. Too many great ideas never see the light of day because the leader didn’t ask for them, or create a culture where your talent feel comfortable stepping forward to volunteer them.

Once everyone’s on board, and the plan is in play, you can make your bets on which strategies to launch first, and allocate resources appropriately. I recommend giving your best people the task of executing the biggest ideas. Ask others to manage the core business effectively while the new ideas take shape. 

As a leader, you must embrace what it means to lead from the front. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it may take a lot of guts to get in front of your customers, community and employees, and be accountable for subpar outcomes even as you share credit with your team for the good ones. 

Just remember: No organization wants their leader snug in an ivory tower or corner office. People are watching your every move at all times, most especially during times of disruption. Leaders must be confident, transparent, authentic, humble and empathetic. If you want to succeed, leading from the front is your only option. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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