Leading in Tough Times

Leading in Tough Times: for AAHSA 

The Future of Aging Services, 

February 2010, Washington DC

Judy Brown

The question of how to lead people through the uncertainties and fears of tough times has long fascinated me. It is an inquiry which I have carried across all sectors, many fields. So I particularly appreciate the invitation to share with leaders in the field of aging services, what seem to me to be a dozen critical leadership practices for such times.  

Recently, as I was exploring this same question with mayors and community leaders, one man said, “The leadership you need for hard times is the same leadership you should be practicing in good times.”  I think he’s right.  And I suspect that notion rings true for many of you.  

And in conversation Wendy Green about Leadership AAHSA, the program we lead dedicated to leadership development of the next generation of leaders in our field, I was struck that the themes I am about to offer you are at the very heart of the teachings in that program, a program dedicated to fostering innovation among emerging leaders in our field.  So perhaps these ideas are not only critical in tough times, but serve us well in all seasons, and particularly when we yearn to help our organizations and our field innovate.  

Let me offer these leadership practices, which have come to me from many sources, academic and practical, from others and from my own experience:

Maintain a steady, relentless focus on what matters no matter what.  When times are tough, all other things may fall away, but our “no matter whats” are what will see us through.  They may be values, relationships, goals, commitments, vision.  They may be our “hedgehog”, to use Jim Collins’ term.  Sometimes it is the tough times, themselves that clarify what matters no matter what.  In the 41-minute video entitled “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure” narrator Kevin Spacey relates how the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose ship, in 1915, has been crushed by the polar ice pack, in a moment realizes that his “no matter what” to cross antactica on foot, has been replace by a new goal: all home alive.  That is the ultimate “no matter what” for his crew of 27, and through weather that makes our challenges seem less daunting, he and his men, finally return to England, “all well.”  

It is easy to become confused, and fearful, when huge daunting uncertainties loom in front of us and our organizations.  And in such times, a leader who is clear about purpose, direction, values provides a sense of steadiness that is essential to people.  Vaclav Havel, the oft imprisoned dissident and poet, who led Czeckslovakia through a peaceful revolution to independence in 1989, and later served as his country’s president, said that in the course of that “velvet revolution” he realized that people needed him to be present, not because there was anything only he could do, but rather that he had come to represent to them a presence that allowed them to “take action without being confused.”   When we lead with a focus on what matters no matter what, people are more able to “take action without being confused.” 

Provide honest talk about current reality.  Martin Luther King, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” provides us a powerful model of the capacity for tough honest talk about current reality---while still holding a clear vision of the dream, of the “no matter what,” He repeats the cadence of “and today in Birmingham, Alabama.”  I have a dream, and today in Birmingham, Alabama…..”  And the honest talk about current reality needs to be about all the dimensions of current reality: the facts and the feelings, the finances and the fears, the problems and the possibilities.  What people most long for is a sense that the organization is committed to seeking the truth, to being grounded and in touch with reality.

Yet finding our way through tough times requires what John Gardner, HHS cabinet secretary in the LBJ administration, and Leadership author called a “resilient optimism.”  Perhaps a relentless, resilient optimism.  Martin Seligman’s research on optimists and pessimists (who often call themselves realists) is that pessimists often have chapter and verse on current difficulties absolutely right, but that optimists get better results and are more satisfied with their lives.   Clearly we need both perspectives, within us, and around us.  But it is a resilient optimism, an unquenchable sense of the possibilities, that creates the energy and drive to find the yet unseen path through tough times.  Shackleton was reknowned among his men for the ability see what was true and to take effective action, yet never to lose his essential optimism about what was possible for his people.

My friend Peter Vaill, years back coined the phrase “leading in permanent white water”, the wisdom of which is to know that it’s not ever going to “settle down”, go back to “normal.”  And Peter says that in the conditions of “permanent white water” there are three essential leadership work habits.  And they are number’s 4,5,6 that follow on my list.  

We need to learn to “lead reflectively smarter.”    This is the practice of stepping back from the whirlwind of demands and action, in order to reflect, individually and collectively, on what we are learning from what we are doing.  And to think about #1 above—what matters most.  We see these practices in many organizations who practice a disciplined “after action review” of major events.  Successful or not successful.   If we return to Shackleton and his 27 scientists and seamen marooned at the bottom of the earth, we see it in their practice of keeping journals and writing about their experience and their reactions to those experiences.  And we see it in Shackleton’s ability at crucial moments, to step back, or as Ron Heifetz says in his book, Leadership without Easy Answers,  to get off the dance floor, and to get up on the balcony, to see the larger patterns.

And we have to “lead collectively smarter.”  Most of us will say that we are never going to be able to figure our way through this alone.  Without the best thinking of our people.  Without the best thinking of our clients.  Without the best thinking of our extended community.  So the habit of collaboration needs to replace our older habit of circling the wagons, hunkering down, turning inward, going silent while we think.  Tough times are a time to encourage connection, encourage communication, to stay in touch.  Perhaps the greatest impetus to collaboration is the classic research of Umberto Maturano whose research on perception proved that only 20% of what we know about a phenomena is a result of our taking in data—of the process of perception.  And 80% of our action and decision-making is a result of accessing our prior experience.  That’s actually not much of a problem when the current situation is akin to the prior situation. But in times of transition, tumult and disequilibrium, that 80% from the past may misguide us.  That’s why we need each other.  The person next to me, has different experience, and therefore sees things I can not see.  With a clarity that I can’t possibly muster.  Only in the collective, in the collaborative work do we have a chance to create a picture of current reality that is reasonably complete.  

And we need to “lead spiritually smarter.”  For you, spiritually smarter may be a matter of values, of spiritual tradition, of whatever it is from which we take our most trusted guidance.  But if we don’t attend to listening to that still small voice within, and encouraging others to do the same, we are likely to go adrift.  William Stafford speaks to this reality in his poem, “The way it is”

There is a thread you follow.  It goes among

Things that change.  But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

Or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Tough times require an experimental, scientific mind set.  The emphasis on “evidence based” practices in the field of aging services is part of that mind-set.  The commitment to research-based lessons on leadership.  If we are to be good scientists we need to practice a commitment to deep open curiosity about how things work, about what might be possible.  And we need a life-long commitment, personally and organizationally, to the process of learning.  As much as there is a demand for leadership answers, we need to realize that more critical is that we have the right questions, and that we are asking those questions of our organizations.  Heifetz, in the final sentence of his book, says, in closing, “Sometimes you can lead with nothing but a good question in hand.”  In fact, sometimes breakthrough leadership, particularly in tough times, comes from getting the question right, and keeping the organization’s attention focused on it.  

These times require a level of clear communication that would dazzle the best of us.  We need to over-communicate by a large factor, and yet that communication needs to have three crucial qualities:  a) a rich simplicity, clarity, images that people can hold onto.  b) a transparency about all dimensions of our collective lives—the finances, and the feelings; the threats and the thinking.  And a transparency about who we are.  All of us, so that we can bring all of us to the challenges of the moment. c) and finally, a brilliant honest powerful framing of our circumstances.  It is the leader who creates a frame around the realities and the possibilities.  The way we choose to characterize our circumstances can create or dissipate energy and motivation; it can open or close possibilities; it can tap commitment or sharpen fears.  The ability to frame, and reframe, or circumstances is crucial to our organization’s ability to move forward.

An attention to assets rather than liabilities, toward possibilities rather than problems.  The ability to see the alive but small sprouts of the new and hopeful.  Many of you know of the leadership orientation that goes by the term “appreciate Inquiry” and you practice it.  Many of you know the fine work on asset based development that is at the heart of the xxxxx and the writing of Marcus Buckingham.  What all these have in common is a relentless search for what is working.  A favorite example of mine of this kind of leadership is evident in the movie “Apollo 13” after the famous line, “Houston we have a problem,” and the mission commander in Houston is trying to figure out what has happened.  His folks are shouting out all the things that are going wrong and he says, “People, people, one at a time……what have we got on the space ship that’s working?”  A powerful, reframing question.

The last three rules have to do with taking care of yourself and your people; of staying alive and vital in the midst of huge challenges.  The first, #10 is simple: Make time for celebration, joy, play and laughter.  These are the practices that help us connect as human beings, that help us keep things in perspective, and lift our spirits.  Shackleton, in the midst of months of hardship, kept his people engaged in games, dancing, music, toasts to those back home.  All of us know the research on the healing effects of laughter, yet how hard it is to remember that as a practice.  Finding moments of joy in the midst of hardship is a leadership skill.  Practice it, and encourage it in your people.

Take your time.  Because there is real urgency in our circumstances, we often get caught up in rushing into things, rushing through things.  Here I take my guidance from a story told by a colleague about a senior brain surgeon coaching young surgeon through a tricky procedure with these words:  “I want you to remember that from the time you make the first incision, you have just 30 minutes to complete the operation or the patient will die.  So be sure and take your time.”

 And finally, take care of yourself.  Whether you take your guidance from the world of emotional intelligence, and realize that it takes time out to “reset the amygdale” so that you can be thoughtful about what is really going on around you.  Or the world of a wonderful book called Sabbath which reminds us that rest, itself, is necessary to remaining human, aware, present and contributing.  If, like me, you know that the human body can’t stay healthy in the face of unrelenting stress, but find it hard to act on that (after all the challenges are so great, and our mission is so important) consider the lilies of the field, or the research that says we will “crash” or organizations if we don’t take time out to care for ourselves.  

And on that theme, of the importance of space in our lives, I want to leave you with a poem of my own, from A leader’s guide to reflective practice.  


What makes a fire burn

Is space between the logs,

A breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,

Too many logs

Packed in too tight

Can douse the flames

Almost as surely

As a pail of water can.

So building fires

Requires attention 

 To the spaces in between,

As much as to the wood.

When we are able to build

Open spaces

In the same way

 We have learned

To pile on the logs.

Then we can come to see how

It is fuel, and absence of the fuel

Together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log

Lightly from time to time.

A fire


Simply because the space is there

With openings

In which the flame

That knows just how it wants to burn

Can find its way.

Judy Brown

From  A Leader’s Guide to Reflective Practice