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Weigh Anchor, Ride Out The STORM
Rudy Karsan (Chairman and CEO, Kenexa) discusses how running an organisation, whether large or small, can be compared to steering a ship
Picture this scene: You are out sailing in your boat on a halcyon day. The sun is shining, there is a steady wind, and you are looking forward to a great day. All of a sudden, a squall blows up, and although you manage to get the sail down and keep the boat from toppling over, it is a tough fight before you are finally able to steer the boat back to shore.

Leadership can be somewhat like this. There you are, sailing along smoothly; and before you know it, a squall hits. If you are prepared, you know that you can choose to either lower the sails and wait out the storm; or you can meet it headlong and fight. Sometimes the latter might work; more often than not, the former is the more sensible way.

Leadership has been extensively written about - there are books that tell you how to become a leader, how to continue being a leader, how leadership differs from mere management, how wisdom is gleaned from various great leaders - the list is endless. There is even a book on leadership for dummies. All basically promise to provide the necessary skills, characteristics or steps required to become an effective leader. But have you ever stopped to think about what you should not do as an effective leader? How to gauge exactly when you need to control, and when you need to let go of that control for the good of the organisation? Do you even realise that sometimes you do need to let go? Running an organisation, whether large or small, can be compared to steering a ship. Many known and unknown factors have to be weighed and balanced to ensure that the ship does not sink and that it makes progress. When a storm is about to hit, you need to be able to read the warning signs, weigh anchor, and ride out the storm. Similarly, as the leader of an organisation, you need to be able to judge how to navigate through all the external and internal forces that come into play, so that the organisation moves forward. Of the various aspects of leadership, one of the most important is the delicate balance between navigation and control.

Just as mariners need to navigate through the oceans, knowing when to hoist their sails to take advantage of a strong wind and when to weigh anchor to ride out a hurricane, or when to steer around an obstacle like an island, a leader must be able to interpret all the information about the organisation as well as develop an intuitive knowledge of when to forge ahead and when to lie low. Leaders need to constantly chart the course ahead, keep track of possibly dangerous undercurrents, and be careful that they are not blown off course by the buffeting winds of an uncertain economy or business environment. At the same time, they cannot ignore the larger picture - that of the final destination of the ship.

But business is no longer smooth sailing. Instead, it can be compared to a river-rafting expedition down Class IV rapids, where you may encounter hidden rocks or whirlpools and be sent hurtling over waterfalls. An effective leader needs to be alert to all dangers lurking ahead, and be able to circumnavigate them in a way that does not affect his/her organisation.

Now picture your organisation as a river that is ever-changing, the employees as the guides whose talents you need to use to the best extent possible, and your customers as the tourists. Your aim is to see that the customers have a smooth ride with your company, and that you and your employees know where the whirlpools and rocks might pop up during the journey. Ideally, your customers should enjoy the experience so much, and feel such a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment, that they come back repeatedly for more.

In the business world, leaders should be able to articulate their visions and goals, and provide direction and execution based on an intimate knowledge of the macro-environment in which the organisation works. They should be able to navigate and steer the company, be aware of all pitfalls, such as changing market standards that are out of their control, and use their judgments to be able to get the organisation through hard times.

Thus, for a business leader, navigation means to possess the wisdom of knowing when to control and when to let go.

There are a number of ‘uncontrollables’ that a leader is likely to encounter, such as varying market forces, employees who leave, competition from other companies, and demanding customers. Of course, leaders should also work at reducing the ‘uncontrollables’ as much as they can.

In their article ‘The Quest for Resilience’ (Harvard Business Review, September 2003), Gary Hamel and Liisa Välikangas argued that a capacity for continuous, crisis-free renewal is the ultimate competitive advantage in a world of accelerating change. In their view, resilience is about being continually alert towards developing trends and forever looking out for new opportunities. We live in turbulent times where nothing except change can be taken for granted. We face complex challenges of new technologies, the explosion of knowledge, global markets, diverse workforces, and economic and political turmoil and uncertainty. These, although they present us with unlimited opportunities for growth, can also be causes of deep uncertainty and stress. A leader should be able to navigate this chaotic world with a sense of excitement, adjusting easily to all the change that is occurring.

‘Companies that ride the currents succeed; those that swim against them usually struggle. Identifying these currents and developing strategies to navigate them are vital to corporate success.’ Every leader must be resilient, prepared to face the storms of adversity, and nimble when it comes to picking up new opportunities. You must accept that you cannot hope to be effective if you wish to be in control at all times and are always looking to ensure a certain outcome. If you are blown off course, you should view that as an opportunity to do something new, rather than as a goal that you have failed to reach, and respond by plotting a new course if necessary. When your company is sailing along smoothly in calm waters, do not get lulled into a false sense of security, but use the time to strategise and prepare for the next rapid you might hit. One thing is certain - you will hit one, sooner or later.

The survivors of the 2000–2001 Internet bust were those who pulled down their sails, rode the currents and concentrated on survival. Employees’ faith in the leadership and the long-term success of their companies was at an all-time low. However, some leaders acted proactively - they communicated and shared information with employees, setting a vision for the future and rallying the troops. They were able to maintain high levels of employee engagement regardless of the poor business climate. These leaders made it clear that, even though they were not meeting financial and business goals, there was faith in the future and that they would survive the storm. And they did.

It is not easy to lead during turbulent times, and how a leader handles him/herself and the organisation at such times speaks a lot about his/her effectiveness. He/she should be able to admit that he/she might have to let go of control for a while, or let the organisation move in unexpected directions. This way, he/she is also learning from the experience and the company is likely to emerge stronger and better for the experience it has undergone.
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