The Five C's of Leading in Adversity

Last Updated Sep 23, 2008 9:13 AM EDT

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The crucible of great leadership is adversity. Many of the UK's iconic figures -- Nelson, Churchill, Shackleton -- built their reputations by leading others through seemingly intractable situations.

Most businesses now face a period of high uncertainty and difficulty and your own leadership capabilities are likely to be tested in the months ahead, wherever you sit in your organisation.

There are five fundamental factors that determine the effectiveness of leaders at any time, but particularly in difficult times.

I call these factors the "Five C's".

  1. Credibility. Competency and credibility are the bedrock of leadership. You don't have to know everything or have all the answers, but you do need to show an understanding of the situation and have a track record of making sound decisions under pressure. As my own mentor tells me, when you hire a skiing instructor you want to see their rear end in front of you on the slopes -- not instructing you from a barstool off piste.
  2. Clarity. Ambiguity is the enemy of leadership. Where ambiguity is allowed to fester your people will assume the worst and act accordingly. The problem is that the world is ambiguous. Your job is to contain this uncertainty and provide a clear direction and set of priorities.
  3. Consistency. Former GE boss Jack Welch relentlessly demanded that each business unit be first or second in its market. But he made these demands in a way that was clear and consistent. As people knew he had been there and done it, they found new ways to raise performance and drive the business forward.
  4. Confidence. Exuding confidence doesn't mean being oblivious to issues or shying away from difficult problems. It is communicating through your actions, words and body language that the issues at hand can be resolved. Churchill, perhaps the UK's ultimate leader-through-difficult-times, demonstrated this in his wartime speeches to the nation.
  5. (Over)Communication. Former CEO of Boots the Chemists Richard Baker made an early decision to dramatically reduce the size of the head office. He used a series of public sessions as well as one-to-one meetings to repeatedly communicate the reasons for the decision and to listen to others' views. The result was a smooth transition to the new organisation, and the morale and engagement of the business was maintained throughout the process.
Which leaders do you think best demonstrate these characteristics -- and which of the five C's are you using to lead your teams in these difficult times?

(Photo of Nelson's Column, Mateoutah CC2.0)

  • Stuart Cross

    Stuart Cross is a founder of Morgan Cross Consulting, which helps companies find new ways to drive substantial, profitable growth. His clients include Alliance Boots, Avon and PricewaterhouseCoopers.