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Robinson School of Business Thought Leader

Shocks to the system: Does your leader absorb them or make them worse?

It’s long been said that when it is darkest, the stars come out.

Leadership today allows for no downtime. The 24/7 news cycle is fed by millions of social media “reporters” (everyone) looking to post the blunders of corporate chiefs, customer service disasters, or other company failures. In this environment, leaders must be on their game – and at the top of their game – at all times. The fact is that a crisis can occur, and mistakes happen, at even the best-run companies. These tough times serve as a crucible for revealing the true nature of a leader, and how he or she can handle – or not – the inevitable shocks to the system.

Great leaders have the ability to be effective when there is stress – great deals of stress – in the system. Major stressors can include catastrophic events such as an airline suffering an accident, an oil platform exploding, or natural disasters such as the tsunami in Japan or Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, or missteps such as Progressive Insurance just experienced through the wrath of social media. These kinds of events create high degrees of stress and uncertainty and can quickly become very emotionally laden for everyone involved.

In our work studying and coaching thousands of leaders, we have seen that some leaders are able to act like shock absorbers. They are able to largely take the hit themselves, thereby protecting their team’s ability to effectively manage through the crises. But other leaders choose to amplify the challenges – almost as if Chicken Little had written their management bible. Amplifying leaders often see their behavior as strategic.

Exaggeration can be intended to deflect responsibility or to plant the seeds of an excuse for failure. Or the executives’ intent may be to increase the pressure on the troops because they feel it is necessary to motivate them. In reality, though, this behavior simply fuels an already dangerous fire as it handicaps those set out to fight it.

The poster boy for amplification is former BP CEO Tony Hayward. His words and deeds after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico did nothing to absorb shock for his team. Nearly every time he opened his mouth in public he amplified the public damage being done to BP, further demoralizing employees.

About the Authors

milesStephen A. Miles is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Miles Group. Previously, he was a Vice Chairman of Heidrick & Struggles where he ran the Leadership Advisory Services within the Leadership Consulting Practice and oversaw the firm’s worldwide executive assessment/succession planning activities. With more than 15 years of experience in assessment, top-level succession planning, organizational effectiveness and strategy consulting, Stephen specializes in CEO succession and has partnered with numerous Boards of global Fortune 500 companies to ensure that a successful leadership selection and transition occurs. Stephen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s of Business Administration both from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada; and a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Victoria.

nbennettNathan Bennett, Ph.D., is Professor of Management in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. He specializes in leadership and strategy execution, managing innovation and change processes, top management team dynamics, and contextual influences on individual behavior in organizations. Nate has published in numerous widely-read resources for managers including the Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal. He is co-author of the 2006 Stanford University Press title “Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO” and the 2010 book “Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals.” Professor Bennett received both his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Master’s degree in Applied Research from Tulane University, and a Ph.D. in Management from Georgia Tech.


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