I was asked this week from a start up CEO I am mentoring what is the greatest strength you can have as a leader. It is a question I have often been asked. Here are my thoughts.

The reality is that it is very hard to define the single most important element of leadership. At its most fundamental you have to have trust. At different times a variety of skills are necessary. Setting the vision and getting people to buy in to the vision is critical. Inspiring, empowering and cheering on is essential at other times. Setting goals and delivering results take precedent at other times. I would also empathically state that great leadership starts with hiring, retaining and developing great people.

However, having been mauled several times in my career I believe that remaining calm under pressure is something that never gets old or is ever under appreciated. Time and time again we are challenged. It is during those moments of truth you can demonstrate and inspire others to recognize and emulate what true leadership is about.

I have seen over my career so many fair weathered leaders simply melt in the midday sun of a challenge. For me, I have learned more from these mishaps. Here I’ll illustrate a few;

In my early career I was a manager of a Pizza Hut restaurant. It was a Wednesday night and the restaurant was slammed. As Sod’s law dictates my kitchen staff was short, the proofer was acting up and my boss had just arrived at the door. Blissful!!

My boss wanted to sit down and talk about the situation. I had an important decision to make. Did I basically leave the very few staff members to the mercy of the situation and deal with the customer and speak to the boss? I assessed the situation and asked my boss if he would speak to me while I made the pizzas and freed up staff to serve the tables. My job after all was to take care of customers and that’s what I did.

In no time we had worked through the backlog and my boss was able also roll up his sleeves and help make pizzas. Within minutes we were no longer stressed. We were laughing and helping to drive pizza to the oven at lightning speed. The staff started to see and hear the noise and quickly customers were lightening up.

Two hours later the place was in order. We had recovered and my boss and I strengthened our relationship and remain friends today. It would have been so easy for this situation to play out differently. I could have sat in the office and talked through my issues and left the staff and customers unhappy. Instead, I remained calm and demonstrated leadership under pressure.

Another critical learning experience that helped my career and define me as a leader occurred while in Poland. PepsiCo had just opened the market and business was booming. The CEO of the International business called me and stated that we needed to tighten controls across the region and that while Poland was performing we needed to help improve the business. I spoke to my management team and we agreed that we could make changes to the cleaning schedule. I waited a day and nothing happened. I now was faced with a decision; how to react. We have all seen the impact of the overreacting boss screaming. I was a young manager and knew that was not the path. Instead I called the cleaning crew in to the restaurant area and asked them to sit down. I explained the situation and that we needed to finish the task quicker and then work in the commissary for the balance of the shift. This way we would eliminate the need for an additional morning shift. The reaction was as anticipated; the crew believed it could not be done. Knowing this I prepared myself and actually was already in staff uniform. I stated that I would clean the expansive restaurant by myself and that I’d like them to sit and take notes about what I was doing. The work was brutal, I ached for days but I cleaned that restaurant solo for 7 hours. The staff members got the message and the next day all work and the commissary tasks were completed in 4 hours by the team. The manager went on to not only run that restaurant but to become an area manger.
Over the last decade I have had the pleasure of leading several companies. All have had their unique challenges. The board meetings are often not all happy occasions. On one occasion I had taken over a struggling food company. The results of a new program were not what we had expected. The entire leadership team was anxious. I sat them down and calmly walked through our plan and spoke about how the board was there to help and offer insights. The meeting the next week, while difficult, was extremely productive. It was a real strategy review and many insights were offered. The result was that future initiatives were more successful and the company made real progress. If I had panicked our 3 year plan which worked extremely well could have been disgarded.

I believe that your team should see that you have passion. They should see that you care but they should never see you flailing around out of control. It is essential that they see you as the confident leader that they believe in and want to go in to battle with. No, you can not be the leader who tells everyone that everything is going to be okay. That is not going to always be the case. What can be your biggest asset is that your team wants you to lead when the going gets tough and that through it all you have the grace under pressure.

The next time you are challenged I encourage you to think about how you react. How you make people feel and how you feel yourself. While you can not control every situation that you are confronted with you absolutely can control how you react. Be the leader that people gladly follow and you will reach greatness. Deliver true leadership. As always thanks for listening and reach out to me at deshague.com to connect direct.

Onwards! dh

* First published on LinkedIn

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