Political instability, climate change, technology disruption, economic recession, pandemic, and cybersecurity issue have created global crises that are challenging businesses of all sizes and industries. Many leaders are struggling to adapt to the new reality and keep their organizations afloat. But some leaders are able to thrive in times of uncertainty and chaos. They are the wartime leaders.
A wartime leader is hyper-aware and ever questioning, constantly articulates and demands adherence to their business purpose, has a long-term guiding vision, has excellent intelligence networks to seek insight and information from a broad range of sources and channels, and isn’t afraid to pivot their business or strategy in response to an impending threat.
These are the qualities that can help any leader survive and succeed in the current recession. In this article, we will explore some of the strategies that wartime leaders use to overcome challenges and seize opportunities.
Strategy 1: Communicate clearly and consistently
One of the most important tasks of a wartime leader is to communicate clearly and consistently with their stakeholders, especially their employees. Wartime leaders don’t sugarcoat the situation or avoid delivering bad news. They tell it like it is, but they also offer hope and direction.
Wartime leaders also communicate frequently and transparently, using various channels and formats to reach their audience. They host town halls, send newsletters, record videos, write blogs, and use social media to share updates, answer questions, and solicit feedback. They make sure that everyone is on the same page and aligned with the mission.
For example, Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International, recorded a video message for his employees in March 2020, in which he candidly explained the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the company’s business and announced some painful measures, such as salary cuts and furloughs. He also expressed his empathy and gratitude for his associates and assured them that the company would bounce back stronger.
Strategy 2: Focus on the core value proposition
Another key strategy of a wartime leader is to focus on the core value proposition of their business. Wartime leaders don’t get distracted by peripheral activities or initiatives that don’t contribute to the bottom line. They prioritize the most important problems to solve and the most valuable customers to serve.
Wartime leaders also simplify their offerings and processes, eliminating any waste or inefficiency. They streamline their operations, optimize their resources, and automate their workflows. They deliver more value with less cost and complexity.
For example, Larry Page, cofounder and CEO of Google, took over as a wartime leader in 2011, when the company was facing increasing competition from Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. He decided to focus on Google’s core value proposition of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. He shut down or sold off dozens of non-core products, such as Google Reader, Google Wave, Google Buzz, and Motorola Mobility. He also invested heavily in innovation and experimentation, launching new products such as Google+, Google Glass, Google Fiber, and Google X.
Strategy 3: Innovate and experiment
A third strategy of a wartime leader is to innovate and experiment. Wartime leaders don’t stick to the status quo or rely on outdated assumptions. They embrace change and uncertainty as opportunities to learn and grow. They test new ideas, launch new products, enter new markets, and partner with new allies.
Wartime leaders also foster a culture of innovation and experimentation within their organizations. They encourage their teams to think creatively, take risks, fail fast, and learn from mistakes. They reward initiative, curiosity, and collaboration.
For example, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, has been a wartime leader since he started his online bookstore in 1994. He has constantly innovated and experimented with new products and services, such as Amazon Prime, Kindle, AWS, Alexa, Echo, Fire TV, Whole Foods Market, Amazon Go, Amazon Studios, etc. He has entered new markets such as India, China, Brazil, etc., where he faced fierce competition from local players. He has also partnered with unlikely allies such as Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to form Haven Healthcare.
Strategy 4: Build resilience and agility
A fourth strategy of a wartime leader is to build resilience and agility. Wartime leaders don’t let setbacks or failures discourage them or derail them from their goals. They bounce back from adversity with renewed determination and optimism. They learn from challenges and adapt to changing circumstances.
Wartime leaders also cultivate resilience and agility in their organizations. They develop contingency plans, scenario analyses, and crisis management protocols. They train their teams to be flexible, adaptable, and responsive. They empower their teams to make decisions, solve problems, and seize opportunities.
For example, Reed Hastings, cofounder and CEO of Netflix, has shown remarkable resilience and agility as a wartime leader. He has faced several crises and threats in his career, such as the dot-com bust, the rise of competitors like Blockbuster, Hulu, and Disney+, the Qwikster debacle, the price hike backlash, etc. He has pivoted his business model several times, from DVD rental by mail to online streaming to original content production. He has also expanded his market globally, reaching over 190 countries.
Strategy 5: Lead with empathy and compassion
A fifth strategy of a wartime leader is to lead with empathy and compassion. Wartime leaders don’t ignore or neglect the human side of leadership. They recognize that their employees, customers, partners, and communities are facing unprecedented difficulties and hardships. They show care and concern for their well-being and happiness.
Wartime leaders also demonstrate empathy and compassion in their actions. They listen actively, acknowledge emotions, express gratitude, offer support, provide feedback, celebrate successes, and share stories. They create a positive and inclusive work environment where everyone feels valued and respected.
For example, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, has been praised for her empathetic and compassionate leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has communicated clearly and consistently with her people, explaining the rationale behind the lockdown measures and urging them to be kind to each other. She has shown her personal side by hosting Facebook Live sessions from her home, wearing casual clothes, and sharing her struggles as a working mother. She has also expressed solidarity with other countries and offered assistance to those in need.
Being a wartime leader is not easy, but it can be rewarding and fulfilling. By following these strategies and learning from the success stories, you can become an effective wartime leader yourself.
Fatemi, F. (2020, May 13). Three Characteristics Of Effective Wartime CEOs. https://www.forbes.com/sites/falonfatemi/2020/05/13/three-characteristics-of-effective-wartime-ceos/?sh=4ab6be8356a0
Taylor, B. (2011, Apr. 26). Are You a Peacetime CEO or a Wartime CEO? https://hbr.org/2011/04/peacetime-ceos-vs-wartime-ceos
Related articles and book:
Collet, B. (2019). Agile leadership. (Online course). https://www.udemy.com/course/agile-leadership/