Business Leadership Today

How To Be a Good Leader in Difficult Times


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

Businesses in every industry are well aware of the huge and positive impact good leadership can have on an organization’s bottom line and chances for future success. Yet, 71% of businesses feel that their leaders wouldn’t be ready to guide their companies into the future. 

Leading effectively can be a challenge, but it becomes an even bigger challenge as we navigate an uncertain future where constant change is the only thing we can be sure of. Leaders who are proactive, not reactive, during difficult times and who embrace change and help their teams embrace change will be better equipped to lead their organizations to success in the future. 

To be a good leader in difficult times means being able to quickly pivot as the situation demands and tailoring your leadership approaches so that you can meet the changing needs of team members. 

During difficult times, team members may require more feedback and coaching to reach their full potential on a daily basis or overcome the obstacles they encounter to do great work. Others may perform better with more autonomy and less oversight. Some team members may need more reassurance about their duties, job expectations, and long-term goals. 

To be a good leader requires a combination of soft skills and other qualities, but, as we look to the future (and with difficult times ahead), are the traditional skills and qualities we know so well enough to help leaders successfully navigate their own uncertainty and continue to lead well? 

I posit that it will be a less daunting task if today’s leaders learn to focus on developing the must-have skills and qualities that will help them be better leaders tomorrow and the people they lead better able to weather an uncertain future.  

There are six areas leaders can focus on that will help them support their teams and keep them motivated to do great work, even in difficult times:


In this article, we’ll discuss how good leaders develop these qualities to help themselves and their team members thrive in difficult times. 

Maintain Strong Communication

Part of a leader’s job is to communicate information about the company’s culture, clearly articulating and modeling the organization’s core values, mission, and vision. This guides employees in their actions and behaviors. It can become increasingly important during difficult times when employees may need to be reminded of why they are doing the work they do and how it’s making an impact.

Leaders also clearly communicate goals and objectives to provide the clarity their team members need to do their jobs well and with self-confidence. Good communication is particularly important when it comes to clarifying expectations for our teams and is especially important during times when responsibilities and duties are shifting, there are staff shortages, or there is increased anxiety and confusion over where the organization is headed. 

Part of a good system of communication is feedback. Many leaders know that employees need feedback to do their best in their jobs. A lack of regular feedback ranks high on the list of reasons employees leave their jobs and is even more vital to the successful functioning of a team during difficult times.

Employees need feedback regularly to excel in their roles and build the kind of engagement needed for retention. It provides not only job clarity but also helps employees course correct when needed, develop an improvement mindset, and build confidence in their work.

But, to be most effective, it needs to be a two-way street, with leadership being open to feedback from employees. This gives employees a voice and helps them to build trust with leadership, which increases employee loyalty and can alleviate the collective stress we feel during times of change. 

Hold Your Team and Yourself Accountable

Collaboration becomes even more important during difficult times when leaders need all hands on deck to get the job done. But each member of the team has to take ownership of their role for successful collaboration, and they need leaders who are willing to do the same. 

Good leaders don’t throw their team members under the bus for the team’s failures or take all the credit when the team does great work. Even though some leaders opt to blame their employees during difficult times, there is nothing more detrimental to a team’s morale than a leader who is more concerned with passing the buck than taking accountability and helping their teams move past missteps and setbacks.

According to the Partners In Leadership Workplace Accountability Study, 85% of the professionals surveyed aren’t clear on their company’s expected results. The study also found that 93% of respondents weren’t able to align their work with expected results or take accountability for them, and 84% of respondents faulted leaders’ behavior as the biggest factor impacting responsibility in their organizations.

Leaders are responsible for their teams and guide them toward achieving goals. When those goals aren’t met, leaders can help their teams course correct and hold themselves accountable by taking ownership of their role in both goal setting and goal achieving and viewing mistakes as learning opportunities. 

The most effective leaders don’t punish employees for failing to achieve expected results. Instead, they focus on ensuring there is clarity in job expectations, goals, and the role employees play in achieving those goals. And they don’t just react when teams fall short of expectations; they consistently recognize employees’ contributions when they do achieve the expected results and embrace mistakes so that they learn how to improve. 

This can be even more important during difficult times, when there may be more confusion about expectations, shifting roles and responsibilities, and more anxiety over the future. Leaders can help their teams weather difficult times by holding themselves accountable for providing the clarity employees need to perform well.

Be Flexible

Effective leadership requires tailoring your approaches as the situation demands and as the needs of team members change. This makes flexibility one of the most important qualities a leader can have, and it makes it absolutely crucial during difficult times. 

Flexibility works hand-in-hand with accountability. Being flexible when possible can increase the likelihood that employees will be able to meet goals and holding employees accountable can ensure that performance and productivity do not suffer when dealing with changing responsibilities, staff shortages, and remote work scenarios. 

Flexibility has grown increasingly important over the last few years, with more and more workers seeking jobs that offer greater flexibility. A recent survey of HR managers found that 70% of respondents cited flexibility as a driver of resignations, the most cited cause in the survey.

Unfortunately, many businesses do not want to forever leave behind the kind of micromanaging that characterized the “old normal” when it comes to flexibility and independence for their employees. But in the post-pandemic world of work, and in a culture of constant change, “old normal” approaches will fall flat.

Though many are pushing back against it and demanding their employees return to an office culture that was often toxic and unflinchingly rigid for many, remote work kept us going during the pandemic. It is hard to envision organizations being able to weather difficult times in the future without it.

For many workers who worked remotely during the pandemic, this is the kind of flexibility they’d like to retain going forward. Offering remote and hybrid work options where feasible is a great way to meet an employee’s psychological need for independence.

Some leaders may be wary of offering their employees this kind of flexibility in their schedules long-term, but, remember, fostering a high level of trust with employees is essential to build influence beyond positional authority. It is also essential to helping team members do their best work, even when the circumstances in which they are doing this work are challenging in ways that are beyond their control. 

Schedule flexibility can provide more structure around work, enhance focus, increase productivity, and improve well-being and work/life balance by reducing burnout due to stress, which can be a game-changer for your employees during difficult times (such as global pandemics). 

Be Adaptable

Being flexible when we can as leaders helps us more quickly pivot and adapt in difficult times. When we are flexible, we are also adaptable, and we build adaptable teams. 

Great leaders help their teams to thrive, even during difficult times, and during times of change. As constant change is the only thing any leader can be sure of in the business world, adaptability helps us build resilient teams that are better able to handle change. Leaders need to be able to adapt if they expect their employees to adapt. Adaptable leaders shine in times of uncertainty. So do their team members.

Adaptable leaders are flexible, creative, and adept at problem-solving. As situations change, they roll with the punches and help their employees adapt and maintain high performance, even in trying times. Agility in adapting helps us not only to survive but to thrive in times of change. Leaders are better able to do this and help their teams do this when they bring employees into the process because it provides them with a variety of viewpoints and approaches to adapting.

Leaders who embrace change and demonstrate an ability to adapt quickly, but also in an intentional way that doesn’t lose sight of long-term goals, help employees feel a much-needed sense of stability, help them adapt more easily, and create an environment that is conducive to innovation (yes, even in difficult times). They are able to maintain a consistent work environment to make employees feel psychologically safe, and they can guide employees as they adapt, making them less fearful of the future and more positive about facing challenges. 

Lead Authentically

Authentic leadership is transparent and ethical leadership behavior that encourages openness in sharing the information needed to make decisions while accepting input from others. This helps leaders build strong connections with team members. Building connections with team members that are rooted in authentic trust is so important to keeping team members engaged and motivated to perform well during difficult times. 

Authenticity is key to establishing and maintaining strong, trusting relationships with employees and helps leaders build influence with those they lead because it conveys honesty, transparency, openness, and consistency. It also demonstrates to team members that their leaders are comfortable enough with them to show them their true selves. 

Authentic leaders are passionate about the work they do and committed to the organization and its employees. They are strongly guided by values, are true to those values, and are true to themselves. They encourage authentic behaviors in their team members. 

Self-awareness and humility are all part of being an authentic leader. To hone these skills and become a more authentic leader, be mindful of your core values and intentional about how you represent them to your team. Remember that it is critical to team morale to model these values and reinforce them with employees to keep them focused on the vision and united with a shared sense of purpose during difficult times.

Be Compassionate

Compassion is an important leadership quality any day of the year, but it becomes an even more important leadership quality during challenging times when employees need more understanding and may be dealing with both personal and professional factors that are creating obstacles to doing great work. 

Compassionate leaders have positive intentions and genuine concern for those they lead, and they demonstrate this through genuine actions. Compassion takes us beyond empathy. When we empathize, we understand and share the feelings of another person. Compassion is more proactive because it helps us to actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. 

Compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent than leaders who aren’t compassionate, which can give an organization a competitive advantage, especially during difficult times. Compassion creates strong, trust-based connections between leaders and their teams which facilitate successful collaborative efforts. It is a particularly valuable skill for leaders to have due to the potentially negative effects power can have on us. 

Research has shown us that power can impair our mirror-neurological activity, which is the neurological function tied to our ability to understand and interact with others. This leads to a phenomenon known as hubris syndrome, which is defined as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

Greater responsibilities and the resulting pressure of taking on those responsibilities can rewire our brains and cause us to stop caring about others as much as we used to. We may find it more difficult to empathize with others when this happens. 

This is precisely what we want to avoid as leaders, particularly during difficult times when the need to understand and empathize with those we lead increases, and a leader’s ability to do so can have such a tremendous impact on morale, engagement, and retention. 

Developing compassion can help us avoid hubris syndrome and helps us maintain authentic relationships with our teams. In short, it helps us to be more effective, more caring leaders in the best and worst of times. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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