There are peacetime leaders and there are wartime leaders. Both have very distinct traits.
Peacetime is when things are overall looking good, a organisation has a large advantage over the competition, and its market is growing. Things are sunny in peacetime, and all you have to do is make the best of the situation. Innovation, expansion, and hyper growth usually happen in peacetime.
In wartime, an organisation is fending off an imminent existential threat. Such a threat can come from a wide range of sources including competition, dramatic macro economic change, market change, and so forth.
You don’t necessarily have to be the founder or the CEO of a company to be a wartime leader. Departments within a large organisation, sports teams, research groups, NGOs, and several institutions go through wartime situations. If you have a side hustle with your friends, it applies to you. If you are the head of your family, it applies to you as well. In fact, if you are leading a team of individuals in any form, you are a leader, and it applies to you.
Peacetime CEO strives for broad-based buy-in. Wartime CEO neither indulges consensus building nor tolerates disagreements.
— Ben Horowitz. The Hard Thing About Hard Things
A wartime organisation is a completely different ballgame. It all comes down to survival. A leader will have to make a lot of tough choices in these turbulent times to keep the organisation afloat. Managing your own mindset is the most difficult skill to master in these times.
Organisational design, process design, metrics, hiring and firing are usually straightforward skills to master compared to keeping your mind in check. If you aren’t thinking straight, it would be very difficult to make the right calls. During wartime, a single wrong call might be the difference between one more day of survival and going belly-up. If you start getting in your own way, it’s not a very good sign. This is the most personal and important battle that a leader faces, and what makes it worse is that very few people talk, read, or research about it.
A leader naturally has a sense of purpose and deeply cares about the work they do, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing. And, nobody sets out to be a bad leader, yet every leader has to face great challenges in some form that’ll define them. You have to understand that things will go wrong along the way in some way or the other—it’s a hard truth that you’ll have to swallow.
The best business problems are those that you can avoid. But sometimes, things totally out of your control can creep up and create unnecessary difficulties for you. It’s not your fault that things went bad, but it’s you who will have to fix them. It’s always the leader’s responsibility. You got nobody to blame. You got nobody to take care of things for you.
This presents certain problems. For starters, there’s no place where you can learn about managing your mindset as a leader without yourself becoming one. On top of that, nothing in this world can prepare you to become a wartime leader. This means that you will face a broad set of challenges that you don’t know how to solve, that require skills that you don’t have, and have no idea how to acquire. Nevertheless, everybody will expect you to know what to do when.
But, even if you make all the right calls, there’s no guarantee that things won’t go wrong. If you are running a big team, your executives might be making bad decisions that are affecting others. There might be nasty favouritism that you aren’t aware of. Or worse, female employees might be mistreated in your organisation without your knowledge. At the end, it’s all on you. As long as it’s your team, your people, your organisation, your teammates, your students, your subordinates, your family members, it’s all on you.
A leader doesn’t have the luxury to let somebody else solve their problems. You’ll have to take full responsibility of whatever wrong happens on your watch. If someone gets promoted for all the wrong reasons, it’s your fault. If the team missed the release date, it’s your fault. If the team didn’t play well, it’s on you. If a good student didn’t perform well, that is on you. If a member makes unreasonable demands, it’s on you. If the product has too many bugs, it’s your fault. To be honest, it kind of sucks to be the leader, and given the stress, you either take things too personally, or don’t take them personally enough. Both are wrong.
Taking things too personally might push you to terrorise your team to the point where nobody wants to work with you. (Just look at your team motivation or attrition rate to get a fair idea.) Or, you would indulge in self-pity making yourself overloaded and sick from all these constant problems (that you are responsible for) that keep on creeping up everyday, thus rendering you ineffective.
On the other hand, if you take a completely nonchalant attitude towards the organisational problems, thereby giving them no importance so that they needn’t be dealt with urgently, it might help you feel better about yourself. But making yourself feel better isn’t your only goal. A leader’s job is to get obstacles out of the team’s way. If you keep on ignoring problems, or start hiding them under the bed, people are eventually gonna get frustrated working with you. On top of that, small problems would pile up into huge mountains, and it would be too late to start fixing things.
Ideally, you should be urgent yet not insane. You’ll have to be aggressive and decisive without getting too emotional. You’ll have to separate the importance of a problem from how you feel about them. You’ll have to think straight and stop terrorising your colleagues and yourself.
It’s a lonely job indeed. No matter how many books you read, and how many people you talk to, your problems will be unique to yours, and no matter how much advice you take, at the end it’s you who’ll have to take all the hard calls. Sometimes the hard calls would be imposing salary cuts, or letting go of good people, or give timeout. These are very strenuous choices, and they are likely to take a toll on you, therefore managing your mindset is very important.
Living in uncertain times, your mind has a habit of automatically building certain narratives. Some of them might be positive: “we’ll get out of it unscathed.” Others might be negative: “this is going to be the end of us.” It’s natural to have them, but when you are judging ideas and outcomes the key to getting to the right outcome is to keep yourself from getting married to either the positive or the dark narrative. To be honest it’s not easy.
Think of it this way: your narratives make you either a naive optimist or a depressive pessimist, when what you really need is to be a realist. A realist knows the limits of their own knowledge, judges the situation objectively, and makes the best of it without getting too anxious about the future.
Any advice on managing your mindset is ought to hit a wall because everybody is a bit different. But here are a couple of techniques you might find helpful.
- Share your problems with others: Speaking to others is therapy. We all need counselling sessions once in a while. Talking to a friend, or a loved one about your problems, opening up about the roadblocks and the obstacles your are facing, and how you are feeling about the whole thing holistically—your fears and your anxieties—would really help.
- Write things down: Writing down clears out a lot of things, and gives you perspective. It also helps you fill in the gaps in your thinking and fix the loopholes in your plans. You can write about your plan of action, or your feelings. Both are bound to help you see things clearly.
- Focus on solutions: It’s very easy to get bogged down by the never-ending problems when you hit a wall. The trick is to divert your attention from the problems and find a way out. Fear and anxiety have their roots in thinking too much about the problems and ignoring the solutions. Having a solution is always better than having no solution at all.
Every business has problems. Every organisation is unique. There’s no smooth sailing in turbulent times. As a leader, you would often feel like quitting, but quitting makes no great leaders. A leader has to learn to live with uncertainty, make hard calls, and convince themselves that there’s no perfect solution to a lot of hard problems—only practical solutions. You gotta make the best out of your situation. And the first rule of getting out of a tough situation is to make sure you have the right mindset to think clearly and act decisively.