Leadership Lessons for Uncertain Times: Lessons for Leaders from We Are Marshall
The movie We are marshall tells the story of the rebuilding of Marshall University’s football program after a tragic plane crash in 1970 that killed nearly the entire team and coaching staff. The university president came close to suspending the program when he was persuaded by students and the community to rebuild it. Matthew McConaughey plays the coach hired to rebuild the show.
In one scene from the movie, McConaughey discards the old playbook and devises a new offensive scheme. He realizes that the playbook was designed for a different time and a different team with different abilities. Your current team needs a different approach to have a chance of success, as they are clearly failing with the old playbook. As a coach, you make a quick decision and quickly implement a new playbook that immediately begins to build confidence in the team. While the team needs a few games to get there, they finally win again. While Marshall’s story is about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of tragedy, this scene also offers a great lesson for leaders in today’s uncertain environment. If the environment has changed and we are going to be successful, it implies that the previous behavior will not work. If you are the leader, you must do more than project a vision or rally the troops with a motivational speech. You need to identify what new behavior is required and help your team learn that new behavior as quickly as possible. In recent months, I have heard leaders of various companies make bold pronouncements that “failure is not an option.” Hearing this message, do you feel your morale, confidence, and optimism improve? Are you feeling better about your company’s prospects? Neither do I. Here are four reasons why this approach is a big mistake:
- First, it is intellectually dishonest, so no one believes it. Failure is, in fact, a possible outcome. The intent of this statement is to assure employees that the business will survive and that employees will be fine, but this may not be true. Failure may not be a likely outcome and it is certainly not a desirable outcome, but it is within the realm of what is possible.
- Second, you insult the intelligence of your employees. Why go to all the effort and expense to hire knowledge workers, who are supposedly very smart, but then treat them like idiots? Smart people understand that there is uncertainty. Pretending otherwise is an insult.
- Third, because this statement is often presented with great confidence and arrogance, it closes a meaningful dialogue. This approach suggests that by the sheer will of the leader, we will prevail. By saying that “failure is not an option,” the leader is really trying to have the last word on the issue. The leader is downright tired of dealing with the question and would rather have people actually go back to work.
- Fourth, this statement absolves employees of liability. By taking the weight of the option off the table, you put it all on the leader’s shoulder. This approach is the exact opposite of empowerment and actually increases stress among employees. Stress occurs in situations of high demand and under control, and increasing demands on people without giving them a reason to believe they are in control does not work.
So how can leaders use the lessons of We are marshall to deal with financial uncertainty and anxiety more effectively?
- Acknowledge the pain, frustration, and fear of the situation.While the failure of a business or loss of a job is not life-threatening like the Marshall tragedy, it is immensely painful. Recognize that employees wonder about their future, but sitting around in the face of fear is not a solution.
- Recognize that we are faced with significant uncertainty and that it will likely continue for some time.There are multiple contingencies that depend on the general economy, customers, competition, regulatory changes, and potential mergers or acquisitions. There may be several scenarios that we can imagine, some good, some not so good. It is up to us to make decisions and act to capitalize on the best opportunities available.
- Honestly assess your current situation and communicate the truth.Clarify your current cash position and how long you can trade under your current structure. Do you have weeks, months, or years of cash? Show that you have the right resources to operate without being paralyzed with fear. This approach will help everyone in the organization understand reality and move forward.
- As the coach in MarshallMake sure you have the right playbook and equipment for this environment. Clarify your best customer and market opportunities to focus on during this period. Based on your current product and service capabilities, where do you focus? For example, if you have an installed base of customers, consider how to maintain or expand your business with them. If you are looking for new clients, make sure your value proposition and lead generation activities are focused on the best opportunities. Make sure you have the right team in the right roles and make decisions quickly if changes need to be made.
- Accelerate your operational planning process so everyone in your organization knows your roles, responsibilities, and goals for the near future.Rather than long-term plans, these should be 90-day plans that are reviewed within a quarter. It is essential that each person has a clear direction about their contribution. Hold your direct reports accountable for making sure each person they supervise has an individual action plan.
- Specify what you will NOT do. Clarify which markets, customers and opportunities no focus during this period. It is essential to focus all your time, energy and resources only on the best opportunities for clients in this environment. Identify specific forms of operation that may have served you in the past, but will not work in this environment. “Keep doing what you’ve been doing” is a recipe for disaster.
So how do you handle the question “are we going to survive?” Let me suggest a model for what you can say. My recommendation is to describe very specific actions that are required to be successful. Now is not the time to make broad and comprehensive vision statements. Try something like this: “I understand that you are all concerned about the current environment, how it will affect our business, and what it means to you. You may expect me to tell you that bankruptcy is not an option. We are currently generating (or burning cash) so our risk level is high / medium / low and we are confident that we will be able to trade for at least one year. Technically, failure is always an option if we don’t execute our plan, that’s the nature of the business. So let’s focus on the specifics of our plan – we’ll focus on specific customers and offers. Be sure to name them here. This means that our sales and marketing organization must immediately refocus our lead generation, prospecting, and sales activities on this group of customers. We are not going to focus on other short-term opportunities.
Our product development organization will focus on these specific projects for future growth, name them. Our operations groups will ensure that we are meeting all of our commitments effectively and efficiently. We are all responsible for managing our cash effectively. All of these details require each person in the organization to play a specific role. Over the next thirty days, we’ll make sure these details are translated into individual action plans for everyone, and each of you will be asked to think your best about how we can innovate, execute, and prosper in this environment. My direct reports are responsible for this planning process being carried out. I welcome any additional questions on any aspect of the business and I promise to communicate weekly as events unfold. I appreciate the commitment that each of you is making with the company.“Marshall’s coach challenges players to” risk it until the final whistle blows, and if you do, we can’t lose. “As a leader, you can’t ask for this commitment until you work out a specific game plan that can win. Do you have a specific game plan? If not, it’s time to get down to business.
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