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Effective leaders must learn how to cope with crises


The past few weeks have provided contrasting illustrations of the well-worn idea that it can be lonely at the top of the pile.


Think, for example, of reports that the marathon “Grexit” negotiations left Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minster, unable to eat or sleep. A news story apparently delivered by no less of an authority than his own mother.


Whether or not you agree with the approach he took, it doesn’t require much of an imaginative leap to contemplate the intense leadership pressure that would contribute to sleepless nights and a profound loss of appetite. He might have been able to ask all Greeks for their opinions, but ultimately it was Mr Tsipras who had to face off against a roomful of powerful and stony-faced creditors.


You might also consider Hisao Tanaka – Toshiba’s former chief executive and president – and the image of him frozen in a 15-second bow of sorrowful apology after an investigation discovered that his company had been overstating its profits.


Although Mr Tanaka has stated that he bears no direct responsibility for the scandal, his statement to the press was tinged with very palpable shame that it had happened while he was in charge.


It is true that the weight of responsibility and expectation that leaders are under often best comes into focus when a crisis rears its head. The current status of both men is likely to leave an impression of defeat – either for a domestically controversial bailout deal or for a resignation amid a major financial scandal. Yet Mr Tsipras won an intensely surprising election and Mr Tanaka had a four-decade career with one of Japan’s largest companies. When they arrived at the top of their respective industries, they were winners.


As an organisational leader, you’ve already proved yourself time and again. You’ve made it through numerous recruitment processes, demonstrated your skills in diverse roles, and filled your résumé with numerous academic and professional credentials.


What this can mean is that you are at your most celebrated and rewarded, and yet also – at least in a professional sense – at your most isolated. As you move up through an organisational structure, you become accustomed to the support and structure of managers and colleagues. You will probably have been mentored, perhaps fast-tracked through training and coaching, and given support by senior managers when a difficult situation arises.


When you arrive in the top office, much of this will stop. This could partly be personal pride – you may feel that you have earned the right to act more unilaterally, and might consider it a sign of weakness to admit that you need help.


It can also be more prosaic. At the chief executive level, there simply aren’t that many people who are obvious sources of advice. The dynamics of a boardroom might limit your options within the senior leadership team, and the confidential, strategic nature of your daily concerns will naturally make it difficult to discuss issues farther down the chain.


This is the basic underlying case made for executive coaching, a concept that has gained increasing acceptance among global chief executives. The idea is that a leader gains the opportunity to discuss issues in a confidential and neutral forum, away from internal company pressures. They can work through problems with an expert adviser and they can develop different areas of their leadership skills.


The great challenge for many leaders, however, is to overcome the perception that working with such a consultant is an admission that their skills are lacking – running counter to many leaders’ perception that, in being a leader, they have already reached their pinnacle. This perception is short-sighted. Leaders, instead, need to view development as an ongoing process of adding to their skills and competencies – something that certainly doesn’t stop at the swish of the chief executive’s door.


Waiting for a real crisis to arise is too late in the day to sigh and curse the solitary aspect of leadership. It is far better to view your own approach with self-awareness and honesty, and to understand when it is definitely OK to seek support.


Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.


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