The three consecutive bands of low pressure areas in the Southern Ocean are called the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties and Screaming Sixties, depending on where you are on latitude. The winds are incredibly strong, to the point where you can call it angry. The sea a tumultuous mess. And deep down on the bottom lie the wrecks of many vessels, large and small, that have succumbed to those terrifying seas. Businesses also encounter areas of difficult weather and CEOs may find themselves having to lead in such difficult times.

The ocean’s low-pressure areas set the scene for a story that I vividly recall from my days as a young naval officer. I was supposed to be on a large supply ship that was venturing down to rescue an injured weatherman on a remote Southern Ocean island, but was called to work on a different project. The captain of the ship was an old salt who was true to the saying ‘Son, I have more salt in my boots than you have ever sailed over.’ He has literally crossed the oceans of the world and was a quiet, resolute man that instilled confidence with his calm manner and pointed questions.


Lessons from the Sea

What leadership lesson came from this? Well, I clearly remember the discussion among my friends who did make the trip. When they returned they talked about incredibly rough seas, winds that shrieked and howled with ear-piercing intensity, and about the ship being brought to a complete standstill time and again as it plowed up and down over crests and through troughs of dangerous, ominous walls of green water. But the other refrain that they repeated over and over again was this:

“You will never believe it, but in the midst of that terrible weather, our Captain asked the engine room for an increase in speed!” 

You see, just like the CEO of a business, the Captain had a large body of people working towards a unified goal. In this case, the goal was to save an injured weatherman. But he also wanted to bring his own people back safely.  He wanted to make sure that his ship did not sustain any long-term damage, so that it would be ready to head right out again if asked to do so. In increasing the ship’s speed he changed the rhythm to be more in tune with the surrounding seas.  In doing so, he relieved pressure on everyone on board, as well as on his ship.

The captain’s persona and public image were bolstered, because the sailors on board continued to praise ‘their captain’for never leaving his Captain’s chair. He had sat there for days on end and everyone knew he was leading them from the front. The man went from ‘The Captain’ to ‘Our Captain’ in the space of three or so days of rough weather.


Tips for Leaders In Tough Times

Here are some things CEOs and other leaders can do when their companies land up in troubled seas:

1. Keep your team focused on the bigger goal.

Remind them why they are there. Remind them of customers who depend on the value only your company can provide. And remind them how important you are to others outside your company.

2. Be the person your team can look up to when doubts start to surface.

If you are the CEO, or a very senior leader, you are the one. No one else should be taking your Captain’s chair from you. Do not find refuge in your office, in spreadsheets and closed door meetings. Be visible, be available.

3. Maintain your composure, no matter how rough it gets.

Your team will take their cues from your words and actions, and especially your facial expressions and behaviour. Remember that 75% of communication is non-verbal. People are watching you. Ra-ra speeches alone will not work:confident, well-respected leadership will instill much trust in your followers.

4. Find a rhythm during the tough times that works within your situation:
  • In some aspects of the business you may have to speed up. Identify what these areas and initiatives are, and use that to build confidence and to motivate people. Help them get over their fears and move out of paralysis into action.
  • In some aspects of the business, you may have to slow down. Let your people know which areas are allowed to slow down so they know that the pressure is off. Your people should not waste energy on things that are not important in the middle of the business storm.
5. Always put the business and its people first.

Realize that in the midst of these situations, as much as people are wondering if the business as a whole will be safe, their primary focus is themselves. They will be questioning whether they as individuals will be ok. Whether they will be able to care for their families, keep their job, etc. Your job as a leader is to be honest and to be transparent. I once said the following to a client when an economic downswing started (anyone remember how painful 2008 was?):  “You can only hire these people back in future years if you survive the next year, so you have to let some of them go now. Yes, it is painful, but this responsibility comes with leadership.” (Those who were let go were hired back two years later, along with many more new employees, because the business had become so efficient and focused during the tough times.)

6. Set the emotional tone of the business.

If you look stressed and become grumpy, guess what: people will take their lead off of what you do and say.

7. Focus on the company, not on yourself. 

You are not allowed to think of yourself first. The higher up in the company you are, the less you may put yourself first. The lower you are in the company, the more you can expect people to think ‘What about me?’ Right at the top you should almost exclusively focus on the company, and not yourself.

8. Do not leave your post.

You should be the first one in, and the last one out, of your company daily. Yes, life may be a bit tough at the top, but it is situations like these that separate the good and bad leaders. And people will remember the good, but never forget the bad.

9. Be visible.

Do not underestimate how much people will be looking up at their leadership. They will say ‘If they look confident and positive, we will be ok and make it through.’ They need to see you around, read your body language, see you smile, and instill confidence wherever you go.


If your business is going through a storm right now, start by implementing some of these tips.