In Challenging Times: Focus on the Mess, Not the Stress


The best way for us to begin is with the following quote: “Don’t Let Stress Derail Your Focus on Servant Leadership.”

Recently, I sat on a panel with local business leaders at the “Leadership Lab” forum held for WD-40 employees. One of the questions from the audience was whether my leadership style changes when things are not going well for our organization. My answer was no.

Our environment should not dictate what type of leaders we are, nor should it influence how we behave as servant leaders — but it can put us under more stress. If left untreated, stress can cause a ripple effect in an organizational culture that deteriorates relationships, weakens job performance, and takes a negative toll on our health — all the more reason why we must hold to servant leadership to help get us back on course.

Servant leadership is a mindset that turns the traditional power model of leadership upside down and focuses on serving the needs of others to help them find greater significance in their work and personal lives. Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen my behaviors better reflect my commitment to servant leadership, but some of my positional leadership behaviors tend to come out when I’m under stress. This will happen; none of us are perfect.

Here are a few things I’ve learned on my servant leadership journey:

  • When times are tough, I need to stick to my servant leadership style and to the servant-led organizational culture we created.
  • Rather than trying to control all aspects of our company, I direct my attention to areas that aren’t meeting expectations. Focusing on issues will provide the best possible chance to get things turned around. It’s not the people, it’s the process.
  • In under-performing areas, watch for “little foxes” — individuals who use negative tactics (subtle or otherwise) to sabotage your efforts, pulling down the performance of the entire team.
  • The speed at which you make decisions in difficult times is critical. Don’t be paralyzed by the situation, but focus to solve the problems at hand.
  • It is imperative to keep the lines of communications open. When left with no information or no direction, people will create things to worry about. Make sure you take the time to communicate with your people often and in detail.

When we were facing challenging times at Datron World Communications, I would have “all-hands” meetings to answer every employee question. I wouldn’t adjourn the meeting until all questions had been asked. When some of the questions (that I knew people needed answers to) weren’t asked, I would tell folks that if I was in their shoes, here is what I would ask — and then I’d proceed to answer those questions. It’s always important to be open and transparent about the challenges the company is facing.

Remain a servant leader through tough times. Focus on the mess, not the stress. Make decisions and then communicate to the organization and answer all questions. You will be amazed at the results.

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