Cool Heads and Creativity Key Attributes of Downturn Leaders

If you're in an alligator-infested swamp, you need people who can see the high ground and get you to it, fast. Team behavior is crucial when times are hard. How do you set your leaders up to be heroes in tough times, yet team players too?

When capital is in plentiful supply, it might seem to make sense to let individual leaders and business units "do their own thing" in search of sales or a new breakthrough product. But when the money evaporates during a downturn, this creative competition can turn into a fight over diminishing resources. You don't want to be arguing over the last water bottle as the alligators approach! It's at this point that the top team's thinking needs to be elevated to what's best for the enterprise. In these conditions, leaders need two key competencies: ego maturity and conceptual thinking.

If you can keep your head...

The 'ego mature' leader is akin to the character painted in Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If," which sums up a core quality of the ideal downturn leader: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you." In technical terms, ego maturity is the psychological construct that allows people to be emotionally mature. People with this characteristic are comfortable with themselves and don't feel threatened by complexity or challenge. Those without it tend to react defensively to threats and are prone to hasty reactions, as well as being less able to empathize with others. Ego mature leaders are ideal for downturn situations because they don't panic or rush to judgment. They can appreciate the complexity of the situation and they can identify what's good about the situation, as well as dealing with its downsides. Such leaders will look for opportunities and work out how to position the organization for the future. They are also likely to be less divisive and competitive, working better in team situations where a more diplomatic leadership style is needed.

How do you find the ego mature?

You can't teach ego maturity in a classroom -- it largely comes through life experience. Some companies develop it by taking people out of their comfort zones, but in a safe environment. The key is to ensure that those in important leadership roles are displaying the characteristics of ego maturity. Look for people who can see the complexity in people and situations: people who will talk about both good and bad points of colleagues and even competitors. They will keep a cool head in a crisis while retaining empathy with staff.

New ideas when they are most needed

Conceptual thinking is the ability in leaders to think "outside the box" and imagine how they might do things differently to reach their goal. For example, using the alligators' backs as stepping stones to reach the high ground. Like ego maturity, though, conceptual thinking is not something that can be easily taught. Conceptual thinkers can see things that others can't, such as finding patterns in seemingly unrelated data and spotting things that more analytical people might miss. These people matter in a downturn because they will find business opportunities in unexpected places. Conceptual thinking is at the core of innovation and creativity -- and an ideal attribute when resources are limited.

So in challenging economic times, the ideal leader is neither a competitive, cost-cutting tough guy, nor an analytic type with their nose in the numbers. A better recipe for success is to seek out those who can see their way past the problems -- and spot new opportunities in the complex landscape of a downturn.

©2008 Hay Group. All rights reserved