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When the Rats are Jumping Ship!

If you haven’t had this experience first hand, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Everything seems to be fine until you run into stormy weather…

Then people scurry away like rats jumping from a sinking ship.

Working with leaders (and those who think they are) over the past several years, I’ve run into several who have shared some variation of this story. Once I hear the details, I usually have much more sympathy for the “rats.”

Why do some leaders enjoy unquestioning loyalty when facing a crises, while others find themselves quite alone when the water starts to flood the hold?

There are a number of variables, but the fundamental question is whether you’re actually a leader––or not. People follow genuine leaders––not managers.

Think about this. A genuine leader is someone with the ability to attract WILLING followers––and has the will to serve them.

  • A leader exemplifies the qualities of Courage, Compassion and Wisdom.

  • A leader is committed to the success of others first.

  • A leader knows that their power is solely dependent on empowering others.

  • A leader will accept blame, risk and responsibility before asking others to do the same.

  • A leader will share credit, authority and power without hesitation.

The manger who is not a genuine leader, on the other hand––manages. And that’s all!

A manager’s concern is often solely on the bottom line. A manager must control. A manager often sees people as “resources,” more human equipment than human beings.

Even worse, I’ve seen managers and executives facing adversity who immediately blame others for the crises. They bemoan their own suffering. They question the loyalty of people who have previously served them well.

Who would you follow in a crises?

The typical case is when there is a radical shift in market conditions. Let’s say for whatever reason sales and revenues have taken a big hit.

The leader will walk into the meeting, lay out the situation and call for ideas and solutions.

The manager will walk into the same meeting and announce pay cuts and layoffs and proclaim that anyone left will be expected to work much harder.

Who would you stick with?

Now let’s be realistic. Even the most compassionate and caring leader must pay attention to those nasty management details––at least from time to time! The bottom line is important. The budget must balance. People do need to be held accountable. Sometimes tough decisions must be made that will not be popular and will cause resentment.

The key is in how you conduct yourself, consistently, over the long haul.

When you express sincere empathy and caring, when you demonstrate courage in the face of adversity and you make wise and considered decisions––and you prove yourself continually in these areas, people will see you as a leader…

And they will be much more likely to stick with you when times are tough.

I remember a wonderful story about an organization that went through a catastrophic downturn in revenues. The initial response, understandably, was to consider dramatic austerity measures. They discussed radical leaning out, cost cutting and of course, across the board pay cuts and layoffs.

Their enlightened CEO took a different approach. He meet with everyone––from the C-Suite to the front lines. He outlined the problem in detail. He shared the steps being considered. But he also said there was still time to consider other options.

He asked that committees be formed at each and every level to brainstorm possible alternatives. What solutions would they propose? How could they address the problem with the least possible pain and the least damage to their people and culture?

General Patton once said:

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

That philosophy sure worked in this case!

From all over the organization people found undiscovered efficiencies. People who were already thinking of leaving and those approaching retirement volunteered for severance packages. Others brought forward innovative ideas for how to respond to market changes and adapt to entirely new opportunities.

And most remarkably, they agreed unanimously to temporary wage freezes, willingly surrendered anticipated bonuses and many salaried managers volunteered to accept more responsibility and put in extra time to get the company through.

There would have been a much different response had this leader been a tyrant who had not shown caring in the past, or if he had simply imposed layoffs and cutbacks.

The rats would have certainly jumped ship! Any sensible rat would, anyway! This rat would have!

Most leaders must also manage. That’s just part of the game for most positions of authority. However, the most effective leaders know that leadership is the human side of the equation and management is the mechanical side.

More important––the most effective leaders know that the human side is the most important aspect of leadership. People run all those processes. People run all those machines. You lead––people.

The more you embrace this philosophy and conduct yourself as a sincere human being, the more likely you are to earn the respect and loyalty of the people you serve.

And the more willing they’ll be to stay and help you save the ship!


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