When the Going gets Tough?

Show Your Vulnerability to Build Relations of Substance.

Steps toward Stoicism?

The old adage runs, when the going gets tough, the tough get going – Very true, and such situations show a particular style of leadership. But is it the only style of leadership required? And the best style of leadership when seeking to build relationships emergent from tough times?

Crisis management and leadership in crisis are specific skills and traits built and tempered in the heat of crisis – the reference, with questioning, to Stoic philosophy.

Hargeisa, October 29th 2008, 11 years ago, a distant date for those not there, just long enough to dull the memory for those within earshot of the bombs. Still close to those who lost loved ones as suicide bombers attacked a number of locations killing 30 and maiming many more.

The walls shook and dust came out from where the cleaners had not reached. We waited as the second and third bombs erupted shaking all of us. Slipping into emergency mode, some went under desks, others froze and had to be pressed to take protective measures. Some went to the roof to spectate – until the seemingly ubiquitous phrase for such moments, ‘Are you fucking stupid?’, brought them out of harm’s way. We started to check who was where and whether everyone was ok. OK? This meaning no one suffered any physical injuries and we have a full complement of people present and accounted for. One person missing, on the samosa snack run for the rest of us. He rushes in having gotten the samosas and news of where the bombs have gone off and to what effect. Yes, the car shook but fine he answers. Cannot change what has happened, and almost unassailable in belief if God had willed then prepared to meet his Maker.

None of us are first responders, there are security professionals in place and starting to secure the scenes. I am the senior United Nations person in Hargeisa it turns out, but I do not press this point as protocols are not what is required at this time. The babble on the VHF, very high frequency, radios is immense, and I have people quietly tell others to stop chatter after reporting they are all healthy and safe and secure. The same is true for the telephone networks now overloaded with people checking where their friends and family.

The voyeuristic is brought out by such events and there are people simply spectating and filming the situations. Doubt people doing it understand. Perhaps a reaction to a feeling of being helplessness, impotency? A reaction to being vulnerable and thinking there, for the grace of God, go I.

One of my younger members of the team had been on the United Nation’s Safe and Secure Approaches in Field Environments, UN SSAFE – another acronym which took longer to construct than can be fully appreciated. He remembered his training and, in a rather nervous state as he smoked his umpteenth cigarette and wished for a Dutch beer, he proudly told us how switched into SSAFE mode and went under the desk. We congratulated him and then quietly advised, next time to come downstairs where the perimeter wall afforded a further blast resistance. And not listen to the old man of the team who then took him up on to the roof to ‘get a better mobile phone signal and take some pictures’. How many people have had their lives extinguished as secondary effects of terrorist activities as they clamour for social media profiles?

I asked one of the more seasoned members of the team to sit and talk with the young man. Had to chuckle as the gentleman, a veteran of the Mogadishu bad, bad, days as well as the Hargeisa bombardments by mercenaries paid for by the Said Barre regime, explained how houses shook with the mortars more than these bombs. But that was nothing compared to when they parked a tank, an old Soviet era T72, behind his house and proceeded to lob shells at whomever they were fighting that day.

The result of talking this young man through this, his first, crisis? Years later I am back working for him this time. He is a man of stature, still with a slightly nervous edge about him on occasions but this belies he knows how to handle people and situations.

By showing his initial vulnerability, all his colleagues contributed to his growth as a person and professional.

As I returned to work for him a decade later, the stature and leadership offered reflected how saying ‘I don’t know, but I am open to learn’ translates. Yes, to the classroom and practicing drills but it is in situations where we are tested emotionally where we grow as a person.

A person respected by others and able to offer leadership where followers can see a character forged in the heat of decision making and tempered by being open to learning from people around you.

A mindset to be created

By being a frontline leader, you become bullet proof. A mixed metaphor but, by accepting your vulnerability, engaging with your team, listening learning, facilitating and managing, you accept the metaphorical bullets, avoid the real ones, and heal to become stronger.

The critical point is knowing yourself and being able to change styles, be ready to change styles in different settings. Just as conditions change, you have to be ready to adapt style; but always be open whilst taking responsibility as a manager and leader.

We all have to challenge the machismo stances, the inability to talk through where we are when the shit hits the fan. Trying to ignore the effects means we will never come up smelling of roses; only living the situations where we hide and get fed crap.

Step up, say what you know, how you feel and gain strength from the honesty of knowing you are willing and able to learn, develop as a person and professional offering real substance as a leader – We have:-


Where L is the leader and his self-awareness

S is the working situation in which the leader is operating noting the breadth of situation incorporating people, place, time and dynamics of events.

O is the organisation – does it allow and facilitate leadership at all levels above and beyond rigidity (or otherwise) of management structure?

A equates to the activities – some things are far more complex to lead, and follow, on than others.

R represents results achieved through the interaction indicated by the flows. Beyond results – are you having an impact with the people you work with?

V depicts the vision developed to give purpose – this is where vision is not an opted out for the organisation’s senior managers but for all.

Leadership is about inclusion and this is where vulnerability in the wider sense comes forward. Admit you do not know and the path toward improved knowledge, vision, commences.

Leadership is an intangible and the qualities of what makes an effective leader will continue to be debated as long as we have need for leadership. What is not debatable is the need for honesty and openness to learning, continuing to develop

PS – He has also given up smoking; well almost, still learning some of those stressful times when still vulnerable to learning yet more.