We are all capable of leading well when times are good, even if we don’t always practise it!  But what happens when times are tough?  These are truly the times that test our mettle as leaders.  Tough times can be two kinds:

  1. When we are personally finding things difficult for whatever reason.
  2. When external circumstances are putting pressure on us.


Let’s look at the personal aspect first.  We all come across this one!  It can range from a short-term demotivated mood, where you really don’t feel like bothering, to a more generalised feeling of being demoralised or fed up.  As a human being, we are entitled to have fluctuations in mood, confidence and motivation.  As a leader, we need to know how to handle these in such a way that they do not cause damaging effects that make the situation worse.

When I was a college department head, we had a drawer in my filing cabinet that was apparently empty.  I say apparently, because actually, we all used it to vent our frustrations, angers and anxieties.  We would open the draw, and tell it exactly what was on our mind, asking others to leave the room if necessary!  When we had finished, we would give it a short burst of air freshener or aromatherapy oil to ‘clear the air’ ready for the next one!  This is one way of satisfying the first need – to express whatever it is you’re feeling.  You can use writing it down, telling a confidante – a trusted friend – or even a filing cabinet drawer!!

Then we need to have techniques to help ourselves to change our state, and help us to get some perspective.  Going for a walk, remembering times when we have felt good about ourselves and our work, and finding something to laugh about all helps.

Finally we need to minimise the situation that will make us feel worse, and maximise those that will make us fell better.  For example we may delay the difficult appraisal interview by a week, and instead talk with one of our most motivated members of staff.  Or we may just clear that damn back log of mails to deal with, so we can feel a sense of achievement!  What we are looking for are the situations which will increase our motivation and perspective, by reminding us of the good bits, and those which will give us a feeling of success.


When the toughness comes from external circumstances, we may need to start by getting ourselves feeling ok, using some of the techniques suggested above.  This is because we need to be able to set the example of how to react, and we can only do this when we feel good.

Often we have a knee-jerk reaction to tough times.  We make rash, short-term decisions, and don’t consider the wider context.  We also frequently forget our values, and look for fixes without considering the consequences.  If we are in a good state, we can take a more fruitful alternative route to decide what we are going to do.

We obviously need to face the situation.  This is best done on your own, or with a team of trusted colleagues first.  Begin by reminding yourselves of what your organisation stands for: your purpose, your values.  Ensure that you remember that your people are not objects, they are human beings, and how you treat them now will have an effect in the future.

Then the questions to ask are:

  • What are the likely and possible scenarios?
  • How can we handle them as well as possible?
  • What influence can we bring to bear to optimise the possibilities?
  • What are the most useful actions to take now?

We all want our leaders to have wisdom, and use their experience well, particularly when times are tough.  You know what would motivate you to do your damnedest to help in tough times.  I know, for me, that I want some straight talking – not pretending everything will be ok – and then I want some constructive thought through things we can all do.  Offer your people something they can act on, and the majority will.  They will certainly respect you as a leader and support you, rather than adding to your problems.

Tough times are bound to happen.  It’s the nature of the dynamics of human beings and organisations.  If we have a ‘tough times’ strategy, we can continue to enhance our abilities as an excellent leader.  Don’t wait for them to happen – start planning your strategy now!!

About Di Kamp

Di Kamp is chief executive of Meta and has been involved in the field of developing people and organisations for 35 years. She has worked with a variety of organisations, and specialises in enabling senior managers to guide their organisations from good enough to excellence, and enabling management teams to lead their people in a way that will enhance their performance. Di has written several books, including manuals for trainers, one on staff appraisals, one on workplace counselling, one on improving your excellence as a trainer, one on people skills, and one on being a 21st century manager. She is currently preparing a further book on the secret of sustainable successful organisations.

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