It seems that no matter where you live in the United States, you’ve had to weather more than a few storms recently. Here in the Northeast we’re still recovering from one of the worst blizzards in history, a massive Nor’easter that has since been punctuated by smaller jabs from both north and east (though, thankfully, not again combined). More than three feet of snow fell in some places, and in our own backyard we had to shovel trails just so our dogs wouldn’t disappear below the drifts. Add to that the recent devastation from Sandy and the seemingly constant whipping of tornadoes across the South and Midwest and it seems as if every morning’s news program leads with a story about the weather.
We often talk about “weathering” a storm, a phrase I find ironic since it’s the weather itself we must weather. Dating from the seventeenth century, the phrase, nautical in origin, refers to a ship’s ability to withstand the worst the sea might deliver. Since the nineteenth century the use of the phrase has expanded, and now is as common and clichéd as, well, mom and apple pie….
And then it occurred to me: the business world we live in every day is fraught with storms. They occur when change happens, when teams “form, storm, norm, and perform,” when leaders explore new options, and when strategies shift. They can happen because of our strengths or weaknesses, because of our opportunities or threats. And I began to wonder: are these storms we simply want to weather?
Storms in the business world are not merely passing events; they have the ability to forever wreck the foundations on which strategy and leadership are built. So “weathering the storm” strikes me as a failed tactic for effective leaders; it seems to me they need to do much more. They need to deal with the storms, wrestle them for control, turn the power of their winds and rain to more positive outcomes.
Here are three key elements I believe are important leadership habits when storms arise:
- Don’t pretend the storm isn’t there. When a storm is brewing, people know. That knowledge may manifest as explosions between people, but are more likely to occur as subtle behavioral changes. You may see, for example, lowered participation from certain people, or an increase in negative responses. Side conversations may occur as well. All of these are there for everyone to see, and pretending that it isn’t happening will only encourage continued problems. As leaders, the only thing we can be sure of is that if we don’t face the storm, it will blow us over.
- Avoid declaring the storm’s end. More than once I’ve seen leaders who assume that the pure power of voice will eliminate conflict. (In my early days as a manager I was guilty of this myself.) It’s naïve to think that a forceful directive will solve conflicts; simply put: wishing won’t make it so. Although it may create a silent veneer over the issues, you can be sure that the issues haven’t gone away. You can’t simply order people to get on board. It just doesn’t work that way, and the result will be that storm simply shifts, moving in different directions but still causing untold damage.
- Steer into the storm by promoting positive conflict. Leaders grow themselves and their teams by managing conflict, not by avoiding it. Constructive conflict is a great way to fuel innovation, creative thinking, and problem solving. By acknowledging differences in opinion, personality, and team styles, and then defining and encouraging win-win outcomes, leaders can make conflict work for everyone.
Conflict, far from being merely a storm to weather, is a storm to ride—and that ride, when taken with a strong and thoughtful leader, can lead to even better places.
What kinds of storms have you and your teams been through, and how have you weathered them?