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How to lead in the toughest of times

Simon Walker, MD, Parajet

Over the years I’ve advised and mentored leaders of all types, informed by my own adventures in yachting, adventure sports and business.  Not surprisingly, over the last few weeks, the calls and messages have increased.

Two things are different now – firstly, this Covid 19 challenge is a monster with deep and lasting effects and the only certainty being uncertainty. Secondly, I’m hands on running a brilliant business, Parajet, the world’s leading manufacturer of paramotors (backpack aircraft), so I’m also needing to remind myself of a few things!

Sail with what is in front of you
In the current Covid situation, there is huge uncertainty and we can all find ourselves trying to model out every scenario. The danger is we forget to optimise our situation in the here and now, and in the process lose morale and energy. I’ve seen this a lot in yacht racing – usually where there are complex and often disagreeing weather forecasts, making the tactical next move hard to fathom.  This erodes morale and creates concern and worry.  What I learnt is while you to can’t control that uncertainty, you can control how you are sailing right now and your progress towards your destination.  We’d often tell each other to ‘sail with what is in front of you’ – ie to optimise your situation in the here and now so that whatever transpired, you were always in the best possible shape.  It’s true right now with Covid.  None of us know how long the current situation will last or how it will pan out, but we can look after our people,  preserve our cash  and take one day at a time.

Make decisions, but be brave enough to change your mind.
Having said we should sail with what’s in front of us, indecision is paralysing.  On a racing yacht, you often have 50/50 calls, and the danger is that if you delay a decision, half the crew would be mentally preparing for one option and the other half another.  Their focus would diminish and they’d stop pushing in a common direction/with common purpose.  This wastes effort and creates friction. I’ve learnt that in these situations, it’s vital that leaders make a clear, unambiguous decision and that everyone responds accordingly.   It’s much more important that everyone is executing one plan, rather than wavering between two.  Of course, if it’s a 50/50 call, you might not be right.  This is where a leader needs to change their mind.   As John Maynard Keynes said, “when the facts change, I change my mind”. Sometimes it’s appropriate to communicate the plan B ahead of time, qualifying plan A but having plan B prepared and ready to go.  Action focused on plan A, then switched to plan B is always better than dithering and inaction. We’ve seen the Government do this with its Covid response.

The importance of leadership capital
No one is ever right all the time.  If you are right most of the time, you are actually doing pretty well.  It’s the same with leadership, most of us will usually screw up.  This is where the idea of leadership capital comes in. I’ve experienced this recently, having to reduce people’s hours, or send them on furlough.  ‘Easy’ is the wrong word, but this seemed straightforward because we’d been always been pretty transparent with each other. But this is more likely to happen if you have always demonstrated transparency so that they feel able to do the same. It starts with you.

First lead yourself
You can’t lead anyone if you aren’t in a good state yourself. Physically, of course, but here I’m talking about emotional and mental state.  You won’t do a good job on any level if you’re not in the right frame of mind. Frustration, anger, fear or despair are not helpful if they invade your behaviour or decision making. Over the years, I’ve realised I talk to myself daily, usually while driving to work. I analyse how I’m feeling about what I have to do that day. If I’m worried I explore why that is and work out how to change it. This self coaching and reflection creates some objective distance and means I arrive at the office with a positive attitude and a clear plan rather than a subliminal feeling of dread. Taking time to reflect and consider options is something we can forget to do when the chips are down and the environment unfamiliar or hostile. I’d go as far as saying it’s essential, however pushed you are.  You can learn to choose your mental attitude. The alternative is a stress response and emotional hijack where clear thinking vanishes.  Doing whatever it takes for you to be able to think rationally is key. For me self coaching is key but rhythmic breathing for two minutes or going for a walk for ten minutes also help.

The power of realistic optimism
In the Global Challenge races, the first section was straightforward – you basically belt down the Atlantic in generally good weather towards Cape Horn on the very tip of South America.  Then it all changes, as you ‘turn right’ around that notorious landmark and feel the full force of the Southern Ocean for the next few weeks while you battle your way to New Zealand.

On Toshiba Wave Warrior, as we approached Cape Horn, the mood tangibly changed. Heads went down and confidence sank under the weight of the Southern Ocean’s fearsome reputation.  The team were uncertain, nervous, understandably worried and needed encouragement.  I’d experienced it before, so I knew what we were in for. But I also knew we could get through it. It clearly wasn’t in anyone’s interest to be pessimistic at this point, but importantly, you can’t be overly optimistic either.   Even if they believed you (and they wouldn’t!) if you’d said it would be a walk in the park, you’d soon lose all credibility and trust once the Southern Ocean turned out to be as bad as its reputation.  I tried to pitch for ‘realistically optimistic’ where we’d recognise the challenges we faced, but I’d highlight my faith and optimism in us overcoming them, based on my previous experience and the training we’d done together.  This approach was essential when it became clear that coronavirus was going to wreak havoc. I couldn’t pretend it would all be ok when clearly it wasn’t.  But I was open about the challenges, and that the future was uncertain. But we had a plan which I shared and everyone knew where they stood and how they could contribute. We helped them focus on what we could control rather than the many uncertainties.

Battlefield leadership
If they trust you to keep them alive longer, they will follow you. The Parajet team welcomed the realistic optimism approach and it set the tone for what has followed during lock down.  I’m often asked what it was like to lead a team through horrendous conditions in the Southern Ocean.  Day after day of dangerous, uncomfortable sailing, with a real risk of personal harm, gear failure and with weeks of sailing thousands of miles to go before arriving at a safe port. In fact, when the chips are down, leading was easier than during less tumultuous times.  Relating to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in the Southern Ocean everyone was too concerned with personal safety and shelter to worry about personal animosities and differences of opinion.  Hot food and drinks (even with added sea water) became the epitome of luxury. To continue the battle analogy, battle focuses attention on priorities which helps to channel purpose and drive. Look how Covid has channelled the NHS focus in so many ways – building Nightingale hospitals at breakneck speed, computerisation, new distribution channels and technological and pharmaceutical innovation.

In command, but not in control
An important lesson I learned the hard way as a skipper, is that you have to sleep – you can’t be around 24/7, day in day out, and so you certainly can’t (nor should you even try to) control every detail.   You have to fully delegate both responsibility and authority to your teams and trust them to crack on with the task. Of course you have the right to veto and overturn a decision, but I’ve learnt to use that option very sparingly.  As a young skipper, an older, wiser mentor suggested I aimed to be in command, but not in control.  The difference is subtle, but very important!  Set the directions and take the big decisions, but don’t even attempt to micro manage.

Obviously the team and your deputies have to be adequately skilled and feel supported, otherwise they’ll just feel abandoned. And the ultimate goals and outputs have to be crystal clear. But it’s a great opportunity for learning and development for all – including the leader.

Medium to long term strategy still essential alongside day to day survival
I’ve talked a lot here about leading though the very immediate situation after a crisis/change as, quite rightly, leaders must focus on what needs to be done right now – looking after their people (their health, safety and wellbeing), the customers and the nuts and bolts of business, cash flow etc.

But leaders shape strategy too and when something as impactful as Covid comes along, your pre-Covid strategy almost certainly won’t be fit for purpose.

Once the initial situation is being managed, we must think though any changes needed to adapt to the new normal, even if there is more uncertainty than usual.

Like all good strategies, we need to anchor it on what we know, and then it will have to be a numbers game – working out which themes and priorities give you the best chance of success and will mitigate poor outcomes.  Now more than ever we need to devise, model and assess multiple strategies, backed up with good reporting and analysis of the chosen direction.  Regular communications to reinforce and rationalise further inevitable changes of direction will probably take you back to where we started this piece with sailing with what is in front of you. Or as we’d say in Parajet and the aviation world, “don’t’ forget to fly the aircraft”.

We all need a purpose
Finally, we all go the extra mile if we identify with the core purpose of our organisation.    As leaders, we should be clear about what that purpose is, buy into it personally and help the team also make those links. I’m lucky that our core purpose at Parajet is one that I and my whole team buy into.  Enabling people to have flying adventures using the most accessible form of personal powered flight, with a backpack aircraft you can fit in the back of a car.

I know we’re all hanging on for the time when lock down is over, Covid is more of a known quantity and we can all take to the skies again and reclaim some freedom  – both physically and commercially.


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