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There’s a time to lead (and a time to step back)

Woman in front of window

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

What makes great leaders great? Sometimes it isn’t what they do, but when they do it.

Great leaders know when to step up — and when to step back. These leaders step up in three critical times:

1. In times of transformative change. During such times, there are no easy answers and many well-intentioned people can have different opinions. There are no easy answers: It’s a dilemma, not a problem. Great leaders step up and, after listening to the different opinions, set the direction. Such leaders then go about getting everyone aligned by focusing on a higher purpose. They also deal effectively with detractors adeptly fend off attacks.

2. In times of extreme challenge. When major obstacles arise that can threaten the entire organization, these great leaders don’t falter. They know that fear and uncertainty can spread like wildfire throughout an organization, so they provide the hope that any challenges can be overcome. They do so by appealing once again to a higher purpose and getting people to think back on obstacles they have overcome before.

Once hope is established, great leaders then develop the strategy. They know they must work with only accurate information, so they hear firsthand from the frontline people dealing with the challenge.

3. In times of major controversy. Trust breaks down during such times, causing people to erupt emotionally and even sometimes physically. I have seen and experienced this many times, even within departments. The first thing great leaders do is focus on reestablishing trust by meeting with all levels of the organization. When trust is regained, all parties can be brought to the table by a leader who has shown that he or she is willing to face the risk with them.

You’ll notice that the common thread for great leaders during these challenges is the ability to listen, put themselves at risk for the benefit of others, get people focused on a higher goal, then make decisions.

But what do great leaders do when they are not faced with such challenging times? The practice what I call “six-pack leadership.” Just like the plastic that keeps a six-pack of drinks together, these leaders keep individuals and organizations aligned. They keep everyone marching forward toward a common goal. They use each minor change, challenge and controversy as learning and teachable moments for the next generation of leaders.

Which of these times is your organization working through: transformation, challenge or controversy? Is it time for you to step forward, step back or take another listen?

James Dallas is president of James Dallas & Associates and the author of Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.