Leading in Uncertain Times

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PHILADELPHIA—In uncertain times, leaders should take a hard look in the mirror and strive “to create certainty, stability and confidence,” advises Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the 20th chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.

“You’re not going to be able to bend the market to your will, you’re probably not going to be able to form and shape world events significantly, and you may not be able to even predict when the latest disruptive technologies are going to hit the market,” Welsh said June 18, 2014, at the Wharton Leadership Conference at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “But where your most valuable resource lies is your people.”

Welsh, who is responsible for 690,000 active-duty, guard, reserve and civilian forces in the U.S. and overseas, said leaders must:

Be credible. If you tell people you’re working on something for them, then get to work. “If you tell them you’re about to turn a corner in the market, you better be doing everything you can to turn the corner,” Welsh said. Leaders get one chance at credibility. Once it’s lost, “you’re done leading.”

Show employees you care. Not just about profit margins, stock prices and the bottom line, but about their work environment, tools and training, and family.

“Every airman, in my case—every employee, in yours—has a story,” Welsh said. Some are uplifting, some downright depressing and some absolutely sensational. Show interest in their story and they’ll “run through walls for you.”

Convince employees you believe in them. Work with your chain of command “to make them understand that … they are your teammates,” Welsh said. “Convince them to believe in each other “and you’ll be wildly successful,” he added.

Remember: Emotion never solved a problem. Bring logic in. “The more uncertain things get, the more tense it gets, the more distraught employees are getting, the calmer you should be,” Welsh observed.

Recognize your people are better than you are. Welsh told the story of “Peggy,” an Air Force nurse who once tackled an inebriated airman in an emergency room in Korea while Welsh and others beat a hasty retreat. “Peggy’s better than I am,” Welsh said. “She’s smarter. She’s braver. She’s tougher. Everybody who works for you is better than you at something, and most of them are better than you at several things,” Welsh said.

Don’t leave common sense at the door. Remind employees and supervisors that common sense is paramount.

Welsh once visited a small African base where, despite a razor-wire fence, a leopard had wandered onto the runway. A crew drove a fire truck out and tried to shoo the large cat away with long poles, to no avail.

Before long, there were “three well-trained, well-educated adults hanging off the side of a fire truck eight feet from an agitated leopard [capable of jumping 20 vertical feet],” Welsh recalled. The chief master sergeant eventually showed up and “stopped the madness” by yelling at the other officers to stop. The leopard eventually left.

“This could have been a catastrophe,” Welsh recalled. “There were three opportunities for that cat to have lunch.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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