It would be a right ‘box of fluffy ducks’ if leading was all plain sailing.

But if you’ve been a leader for longer than a nanosecond, you’ll know all too well the pain of leading through tough times. From a complicated crisis to the slow, grinding burn of cost-cutting recessions, leading a team through stormy waters requires strong leadership. When there’s adversity, people will look to you to see how to behave. Your whisper will come out as a shout. 

How you handle hard times will set the tone for how your team handle those same hard times. If you’re running around like a headless chicken or acting like a sulky toddler who missed out on their favourite ice cream, people will consider the way you are leading – and then they will quickly follow suit.

Perhaps more than when you lead in good times, turbulent situations are where the rubber hits the road.

So if you’re feeling like you’re in a pickle, read on immediately. And, if you’re riding the wave of success and singin’ “can’t touch this”, read on anyway and file this puppy away for when you really need it.

Here are 6 ways to lead your team through turbulent times:

1. Build resilience in yourself and those you lead

See here for practical ways to do this. In times of crisis or difficulty, connection is even more important than it usually is. Provide opportunities for people to connect and share their experience in ways that suit their different styles. Those who are expressive and outgoing might want to talk, whereas introverted team members may prefer the opportunity to connect in more introspective ways.

The key is to strengthen the connection within the team. Don’t slide into silos and individually suffer in silence.

2. Build a sense of control

Even when it appears so much is out of your control. It is natural for people to feel powerless and victimised in tough times, so it is important for you to help your people shift from the mindset of the passive victim. Empathise, listen (and listen some more). But don’t encourage people to remain in victim mode for long.

Ask, “What is within in our power in this situation?” “Yes its tough. And, what is within our here and now?”  “What are our options, given X, Y and Z?” There is always something you can do, even if its changing your attitude to those factors outside your control. These responses imply the power remains with the individual and that some positive outcomes can emerge from this tough situation. Help people face reality, but at the same time help them find appropriate ways to deal with it.

3. Be versatile in your communication style

A skilled leader changes their communication to suit the varying styles of those they lead. This becomes even more important in tough times. Mary may prefer to talk about her feelings and the effect on the team, whereas Tom might prefer to cut to the chase and focus on outcomes or processes for responding to the situation. Tune in and adapt your style accordingly.

A skilled leader changes their communication to suit the varying styles of those they lead.

4. Communicate often, candidly and clearly

It is almost impossible to over-communicate in tough times (remembering that it’s a two-way street – listening and communicating key messages.) Ironically this is one of the most crucial times for providing an inspirational and compelling vision of a way forward.  Metaphors can be your friend here. Is what you and your organisation experiencing like climbing a mountain, navigating stormy seas, or like a famous sports team half way through the season and not performing? Look to nature if you’re stuck – it’s full of powerful metaphors. Storytelling and metaphors help people make sense, which in turn lowers anxiety.

5. Look after yourself

You are as useless as a chocolate teapot if you’re a burnt out puddle of sludge. Exercising, eating healthily and doing things that fill up your tank are imperative in times like this – even (and especially) when you think you “don’t have time.”

6. Finally, put it all in perspective

As the saying goes, “this too, shall pass.” Know that you won’t be in this pickle forever. Winston Churchill once said “difficulties mastered are opportunities won.” If you look at it with the right mindset, there is usually rich learning and silver linings – even in tough times.

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