Leading under pressure

Joachim Stempfle

In my work as a coach and facilitator, I currently find myself actively supporting multiple senior leadership teams grappling with significant challenges. The pressure these teams face doesn’t originate from a singular source, but converges from multiple fronts simultaneously. A prevalent scenario typically involves a constellation of three factors: navigating a demanding macroeconomic landscape, responding to increased result and cost pressures, and dealing with an outdated organizational setup and culture which demands fundamental changes. This complex situation is further exacerbated by leaders and employees who are confused, anxious, and hesitant to embrace necessary changes, some of them clinging to an outdated reality.

It is important to recognize that mindful, responsible leadership under such circumstances is demanding and emotionally taxing. I have immense respect for leaders who embrace this challenge, striving to guide their organizations through today’s turbulent waters while setting them up for the future.

Through my work, I have identified four key success factors for leadership teams that are operating under such circumstances.

Build deep connection and create an environment where people can be open and vulnerable with each other

When a leadership team is dealing with a highly challenging reality, building deep connection and trust among the members is a prerequisite, for multiple reasons. Firstly, team members will be tested beyond their limits in terms of personal resilience and well-being. The stressors are real and cannot be eliminated. Trustful relationships are nature’s antidote against stress and hardships. When we feel heard, seen, and understood by our colleagues, we can lower our guard, open up, and share our vulnerabilities. This is a prerequisite for addressing fears, doubts, tensions, and unresolved challenges. Only when these issues are brought to light can they be effectively addressed. In teams where such conversations are absent, reality is avoided, conflicts arise, and superficial solutions are sought, providing an illusion of control, but failing to address the underlying issues.

In practice, this involves dedicating quality time together regularly, encouraging and enabling individuals to share, reflect, and process their emotions and perceptions, allowing them to come to terms with themselves, each other, and reality. Often, when off-sites begin, participants arrive with heightened stress levels and tension. Through initial human-to-human interactions, team members are able to calm down, reconnect, and tap into their inner strengths to tackle reality.

Start from a point of truth

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Meaningful action in challenging circumstances requires a commitment to reality – we must act on the reality that exists, not the reality we once knew or wish for. Embracing and accepting reality is a critical, but difficult step. In most cases, there are ugly “elephants in the room”, things that are difficult to speak about or put out in the open, e.g. challenges for which we have no solution, necessary changes that will affect team or even LT members, etc. Dysfunctional leadership teams tend to avoid speaking about such tensions or “elephants in the room”, instead complaining or blaming others for those issues. The first step to change reality is to see clearly and accept reality.

In one organization, we assisted a new leader in working with her leadership team. The organization was plagued by a multitude of unresolved legacy issues. The culture was one of harmony and avoidance – issues were not openly addressed but carried forward year after year. As a result, change pressure mounted, and a backlog of legacy issues remained unaddressed, many tied to individual egos and comfort zones. With this team, we conducted a “sensemaking” exercise, challenging them to objectively describe reality. Using a simple framework of “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” we asked them to list everything that needed to be discussed and addressed. We defined the “ugly” category as “the stuff no one wants to talk about, the skeletons in our closet, the things no one ever dared to address,” encouraging courage and honesty. While it was a difficult exercise that evoked discomfort and emotions, the team managed to complete it, and this assessment of reality became the starting point of their transformation journey. Two years later, after transformative work resulting in significant changes yielding positive outcomes, the board member still cites this discussion as the turning point. She believes it was the defining moment when the team moved past avoidance and denial and embraced reality, taking ownership of the transformation together.

A few years back, I facilitated a session for a team operating in an industry undergoing disruption. A significant portion of their current business was at risk due to an impending shift in technology. In this organization, there was still a lot of “holding on to the past,” avoidance, or denial, as the reality was difficult to accept and embrace. After spending the morning of the first day connecting, sharing strengths, stressors, and resources, and reflecting on individual and collective patterns how we are dealing with pressure, we spent the afternoon making sense of the situation, striving to clearly see “what is.” We also invited a member of the board to share their perspective on the current reality. In this intimate setting, with a team committed to understanding the truth, the board member was more open than usual, and the team had a candid discussion about the situation. While the reality was difficult to face, once the team looked at things as they truly were, there was a surprising sense of liberation in the room. The sensation was, “for the first time, we are facing reality as it is. Now it is clear what our responsibility is.” This level of clarity felt liberating and put people at ease.

Insights from Buddhist philosophy can be invaluable for truly adopting the principle of acceptance. Buddhist philosophy emphasizes the concept of impermanence. Nothing on this earth is permanent or stable. Everything emerges, flourishes, and eventually dies, making way for new growth. As long as we cling to the past or to our notions of how things should be, we are stuck. We hold on to something that is already gone and thereby remain closed to what is emerging. Our responsibility is to let go and bring about what is to come. Radical acceptance in Buddhist philosophy implies a commitment to see things as they are, accepting and embracing reality – regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, easy or difficult.

Build a realistic vision of the future and a bridge from reality

Once teams have established an honest and shared picture of reality, it is time to speak about the responsibility of the team to set the organization up for the future. Concretely, this means working out a vision of the desired future together.

However, vision work more often than not tends to be too lofty, high level, idealistic. Leaders love to think about vision and strategy, but their thinking can be disconnected with reality, or with the capabilities of the team and the organization. If it is not grounded in reality, vision work can become a cheap escape from reality. Vision work does require creative and breakthrough thinking, but it also needs to be practical. In this sense, a vision is a concrete picture of the future we want to bring about.

A good vision gives people a peek into how the organization’s purpose will play out in the future. It is all about serving current and future customer needs, fully leveraging our capabilities and assets, while adopting new technology and adapting to the evolving needs of our customers and people. The logic is straightforward—when technology and customer needs change, the way we express our purpose and help our customers has to change as well. The why remains, but the how—our solutions, processes—needs a revamp. So in this sense, the vision is our way of spelling out how we will be there for our customers in the years to come.

An often-dismissed challenge in leadership is not just to articulate the future vision, but also connecting it to the current reality and defining the path from the present to the desired future.

The single most underestimated success factor in transformation is progress. Tangible and continuous progress towards the vision is essential for people to believe that the future state can indeed be reached. Through ownership of the transformation journey, leaders can facilitate small incremental wins and consistent successes.

To do this, leaders must truly own the transformation journey. Leaders who get fixated on vision and strategy without assuming ownership of the transformation journey end up disconnected from their organization and lacking empathy. They might simply expect others to implement and when that does not happen, they start to pass blame or micromanage. Over time, such leaders become a liability. Rather than just expecting others to execute, a more effective approach involves continuously thinking through the critical target groups, steps and actions that will enable the entire organization to understand, engage, and act upon the vision.

Obviously neither the vision nor the transformation path should be defined by senior leadership teams in a vacuum. By nature of their role, senior leaders tend to be disconnected from people’s daily reality and the actual operations. It is dangerous to make decisions on a detail level from this vantage point. Leaders need to be humble in the sense that they acknowledge that they will need to listen and work with others to establish a holistic picture of reality, and a transformation plan that is firmly grounded in reality and practical. However, working with others does not absolve senior leaders of their ultimate accountability for both the vision and the transformation journey.

Engage with others and accept that this is the job

It is a real challenge for a leadership team to successfully go through the first three steps described above. But the real work of leaders only begins here. Leadership is all about creating movement in the organization. And this requires a lot more than mere communication: It is about understanding who the key groups are in the organization that can bring about the change, and engaging with them deliberately, regularly, authentically. An obvious group to work with is the community of leaders on other leadership levels. However, leaders also need to engage with multipliers across the organization – teams and people who are working on crucial elements of the vision and strategy. Often, simply spending time with them already sends a strong message and encourages and empowers the people who are working on a key piece to keep going. Replicating trust, connectivity, and honest dialogue across different levels of leadership transforms the organizational culture toward the open and honest dialogue initially established within the leadership team. Leaders need to encourage and teach others to have the same open, trustful, honest dialog among each other and with other leadership levels. The only way to do this in a credible manner is to role model this kind of dialog in direct interactions with others.

In this transformative stage, leaders are encouraged to be intentional about identifying key target groups and developing deliberate, regular engagement plans. Building trust, especially in hierarchical cultures, requires time and connection, necessitating a deliberate approach. The culture of openness across hierarchy levels and functions needs to be built deliberately, “one interaction at a time”, “one team at a time”.

In this phase, we advocate for senior leadership teams to engage directly with other teams in a hands-on fashion. Instead of looking at power point presentations, we encourage them to roll up their sleeves and collaboratively tackle critical topics and key decisions with key target audiences. In one organization, after two years of transformational efforts, a five-day sprint was scheduled for the senior leadership team to define a new Operating Model. However, only the first and last day was dedicated to internal team collaboration. The remaining three days involved direct engagement with various other teams, actively listening, soliciting ideas, co-creating options, and sounding out proposals. This approach ensured that the decisions made on the last day were robust and grounded in reality.

During this phase, it is crucial to assist senior leaders in letting go of their strong need for content-level control. Their role is not to alter operational plans, but to inspire, interact, challenge, and coach the leaders and teams responsible for these plans. Leaders need to embrace that their role is 80% authentic two way communication, and that they need to change their agendas accordingly.

The reward

Once again, I have a deep level of respect and empathy for any leadership team that embraces their responsibility to lead an organization through challenging times. The path is never easy, it is always a journey, and especially in the beginning, there will be moments where leaders feel stuck and overwhelmed. But when leadership teams embrace the currents and navigate the uncertainty, eventually a tipping point emerges, where people do respond, where small wins are starting to accumulate, and leaders realize within their heart that despite all of the challenges, the journey is ultimately gratifying, creative, and fulfilling.

I would like to end this post with a quote by Rabindranath Tagore that beautifully captures what transformative leadership is all about:

“The one who plants a tree, knowing that he will never sit in its shade,
has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”