Leading people: Navigating through stormy seas

It is tempting to play safe in tough times, but it can also be good to take risks.

Are these really tough times? Or are we just used to moaning about how hard it is? Well, there is instability in our government, a rather frightening economic situation, increasingly hysterical media headlines about the climate, crime and terrorism, and a funding environment that is changing beyond all recognition.

It feels like we're in a small sailing boat attempting to cross the Atlantic. The wind's changed direction, there are storm clouds overhead and our seas are distinctly choppy. Is our boat strong enough? Can we repair our sails? Can the crew cope with rough seas and high winds? Will they mutiny? What happens if we spring a leak? Can I, as the manager, navigate us through these rough seas, or should we all abandon ship?

But here's the thing: anyone can be a good captain and reach the other shore when the seas are calm. That's not the test of strong leadership. The test is in how we react to unfavourable conditions. Do we turn for the nearest harbour, hoping we won't get dashed on the rocks? Or do we plough on, believing we can reach the other shore?

Our instinct is probably to be careful: stop spending; stop investing in new projects; don't take risks. That's certainly pragmatic thinking. But is it the right thinking? Those things may help you to survive - but in doing them have you missed your opportunity to cross that ocean and reach that shore?

Perhaps now is the time to be brave: take that loan; invest in that project; take on those staff. I've been working for more than a quarter of a century, and in that time I have observed that the organisations that go on to achieve great things are often those that weren't scared off by stormy waters, but which set their sights on the other shore, repaired the leaks, fixed the sail, lived off dry bread and used the jam to lubricate the stanchions. Go on, risk it.

- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert.

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