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Is there a place for draconian leadership in business?

You may be able to act more graciously now rather than waiting for the brick wall to appear


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As I write this, the coronavirus is rampaging through China and making its way to other countries. The Chinese government has announced “draconian” measures to try to stop the spread. While day-to-day life in China still seems to put state’s rights ahead of individual rights, they are employing tactics that may achieve their goal of stopping the coronavirus while subjugating liberty and the pursuit of happiness; perhaps justifiably so.

This got me thinking about leadership tactics in organizations that are unhealthy (i.e. turnaround situations) versus those that are hitting the mark. I have some experience with this — though experience and wisdom are not often the same thing. I did a couple of stints as a CEO in turnaround situations and was a multi-unit retail guy for many years where normal life is trying to fix a broken store, region or area. I’ve employed some “draconian” measures in both of those situations and led healthy organizations. Do you have to lead differently in these two different arenas?

Turnaround situations (like health emergencies) require speed, quick decisions, tough mindedness and very assertive behavior. You are certain to piss off many people in your quest to save the organization. You’ll have to live with the fact that you will make some mistakes in your quick decision making.

That may all sound rather harsh, but if you look at the words, how different is it than running a successful company? The difference, you might argue, is speed. I do not believe that turnaround situations demand secrecy, eschew collaboration (though perhaps with a smaller group) and require leaders to lead without a heart. In fact, I would argue that the best tactics are to be honest (no doubt upsetting those who you deem unnecessary or too expensive), to allow your remaining leaders to help you with the decision making and to show the empathy that people deserve.

Much like a decision to quarantine a city in China, making snap decisions in a failing business (often literally within hours) to eliminate projects, jobs, business lines, unprofitable customers and hard assets requires tough minded leadership. If you have empathy, this is not fun work. It does not, however require you to be belligerent. It does not require you to stuff your emotions. It does not require you to hide from those who are negatively affected.

If you are on cruise control while running a successful business, you might think, “What if I had to reduce expenses by X%?, or What if I had to gin up a bunch of new revenue quickly?, or What if a disruptive company entered our space with a killer product?”

Leadership is hard. I don’t know many who get through an entire career without a catastrophic event. Best to be prepared. However, maybe you already have the skills and would just have to “speed it up.” If that is the case, should you do it now, before a disaster while you can take less draconian measures? People and assets can perhaps be redeployed rather than eliminated. You may be able to act more graciously now rather than waiting for the brick wall to appear.

Leaders who put their heads in the sand and wait for disaster to strike create a lot more misery than those who are future focused and willing to make tough decisions early. In the end, they are much less draconian.

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is president of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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