How to Lead When You’re Not Expected to Succeed
Welcome to the Department of Lost Causes. Because of the nature of organizations, even failing and dying organizations need leadership, lest they sell the furniture, close the offices, and let their workers go. An organization in its death throes is a sorry sight, especially if the organization has a proud history.
If it should come to pass that you’re chosen to lead such an organization or group, what do you do? You could refuse, and allow the group to fail without you, or you can accept, even if you know that your chances of resurrecting the group are slim to none. If you choose to accept, you have to make sure that you won’t get the blame for the group’s failure, even if your turnaround efforts are unsuccessful.
Leaders rally the troops
It is important for you to meet with your group as soon as you have taken on the leadership role. Let the group members know that you are aware that things are grim, but that if they give you their support, even temporarily, you can at least attempt to find a workable course of action, which may include an orderly shutdown. People who work for a company often freeze up at the possibility that they may lose their jobs, for example, so it’s your job to explain to them that even if that happens, you will do all you can on their behalf.
In this, you’re much like a doctor who is attending a dying patient. On the one hand, you want to do everything possible to save the patient; on the other hand, you want to know when it is time to cease heroic intervention in favor of making the patient’s last moments as comfortable as possible.
Leaders follow the money
Every organization depends on a flow of funds, so the very first thing you should do is have someone audit the books. This way you know how much money is really in the till and how it has been spent. Announce and publish your results to the entire membership. If you find that there has been no wrongdoing, your publication of the results may spur some members to increase their contributions. If there has been poor administration, you have given yourself and others valuable information about why things are going badly, and can begin to correct them.
Choose a short-term goal to lead
After you know the money and the people situations, develop a short-term goal. That goal will almost inevitably involve the funds of the organization. If there are problems that you can fix by spending money, spend it. If there are problems that you can fix by not spending, stop spending.
The second short-term goal is rebuilding trust. If you have a failing business, you have to rebuild trust with your customers. If you have a church with dwindling membership, you have to rebuild trust with the community. If you have a sports league whose membership is dwindling, you have to rebuild trust with the remaining members. They are your greatest allies in helping you to grow again.
Leaders know when events are beyond their control
Say your church is dwindling because of a demographic shift in your neighborhood. It used to be Baptist, and suddenly there is a huge influx of new Indian immigrants, all Hindus, into the community. They may not want to pray at your church, but if you can, invite them to take part in the activities you sponsor. If you set up a group that helps them learn about the community or obtain assistance from the local social service agencies, you may help give your own church some new life.
But what happens when events are beyond your control? The demographic and lifestyle shifts that change so many communities, and the “creative destruction” of market forces almost inevitably mean that no group lasts forever. Under the circumstances, you have to be like the pilot of a plane that is crashing. Keep the wings level even as you crash, so that when somebody does the postmortem, he or she will say that you acted diligently and prudently and that nobody could have done more.
Failure can be a stepping-stone to success at a later time — if you handle the failure well and learn from your mistakes.