How to Achieve a Turn Around

Last Updated Jun 21, 2011 9:48 AM EDT

Speaking on CNN's "In the Arena," David Gergen, an advisor to four U.S. presidents, spoke of his belief that a leader's job is to address tough issues.

Gergen, author of Eyewitness to Power, The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton, a superb study of presidential power, is correct that the measure of a leader is the willingness to confront problems and seek solutions. That comes down to two factors that are essential to leadership success:

The commitment to action: Action begins with the decision to address a serious issue. You know the issue is a big problem when it has the potential to wreck your business, or alternately, when few people are willing to tackle the issue for fear it will wreck their careers.

The strength to follow through: Courage plays a part in this because it takes guts to stand up for what you believe, especially when your views are contrary to those in charge.

If you want to see how these two factors come together, look no further than the rejuvenation of Ford Motor Company. When Alan Mulally (pictured in photo above) became CEO in September 2006, the company was losing market share due to an uninspired product line save for pick up trucks. Mulally called for bold action and with his executive team developed One Ford, a straightforward plan of action that would focus on core brands and globalize vehicle platforms. The company also shrewdly arranged for ample lines of credit to finance the effort; this preemptive action forestalled the need for bankruptcy as well as federal loans.

Mulally, together with his senior team, exerted the will to focus on the plan. In large organizations like Ford, this is no easy thing. Managers in the middle are accustomed to receiving directives from the top but failing to act on them. Very often they get away with it because they feel that such directives are a passing fad and worthy of ignoring.

Mulally and company also withstood adversity. The turnaround was not immediate. Ford was still developing a new product line when the Great Recession struck. It took much fortitude to continue to believe in the efficacy of the One Ford plan. And while the turnaround effort is still an ongoing project, Ford sales and share have increased and today the company is the most admired automaker in the world.

How well a leader exerts will and follows through with fortitude will shape that leader's legacy. We remember leaders for what they have accomplished rather than what they have avoided.

Addressing the tough issues may be the stuff of history but it is not something can be left to the books; it must be practiced everyday.

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image courtesy of flickr user, Michigan Municipal League (MML)