Annually, we would gather at a local restaurant for a holiday celebration that resembled a wake. Over drinks, our boss would recount the terrible year coming to an end and how he believed our company would not survive another. The current year ended in defeat and we faced the coming one with dread.
As director of marketing, I was challenged to keep our salespeople motivated. A tough task with the fear we weren’t going to make it. Our boss’s answer to falling sales was to retreat: lay people off and cut expenses. We were spiraling down the drain our ever-worsening level of service drove customers away.
Overwhelmed, our boss resigned his position and took a job delivering phone books—not as much pay but a lot less stress. In contrast to our Ivy League educated former boss, his successor had only a high school education and little experience in our business.
His first day, he gathered the staff and announced we were going to upgrade our computer system. A new computer system! Why would you make a major investment with the company going out of business? Maybe, things were not as bad as we thought.
He presented a positive view of the future and employee morale soared, as did productivity and sales.
More important than a college diploma, he possessed a can-do attitude. He provided hope, while setting an example of hard work and resistance to adversity. He was a leader rather than a retreater and the company prospered under his guidance.
When the confederate army surged through a gap in the union line during the Civil War battle of Chickamauga, the northern troops and their officers panicked and ran.
General George Thomas wasn’t running. He assembled a defense line that held long enough for the retreating army to make it to safety. Thomas saved he Army of the Cumberland and became forever known as the “Rock of Chickamauga.”
George Thomas was a leader. In the midst of panic he rallied his troops and held his ground. In contrast, a retreater is prone to retreat. At the first sign of trouble he or she gives up the fight, runs for safety. As the leader goes, so go the troops with them all hope of success.
In advance of a Japanese victory, general Douglas McArthur was ordered to flee the Philippine Islands. A pragmatist, he knew the battle was lost but he was determined to win the war. When he arrived in Australia, he made a simple statement that rallied resistance and offered a vision for the future: “I shall return.”
Like McArthur, a leader is a realist. He or she understands retreat is sometimes necessary; but when required, it is an organized withdrawal, giving way while maintaining morale and setting forth a vision of an ultimate success.
Even when facing failure, leaders continue to lead: presenting a positive view of the future; standing firm in the face of adversity; and offering hope.