Leadership Matters: Urgency vs. Panic

Leadership in volatile times requires an understanding of how to instill urgency without creating a sense of panic.
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Editor's Note: This is a new weekly column on leadership by Dr. Todd Thomas, who founded IMPACT Consulting and Development and previously led executive development at Daimler and organizational learning at Rockwell Avionics in addition to teaching as a professor at North Carolina State and Indiana University. This column will appear every Monday in the "Don't Miss" section of TheStreet.com homepage.

In times as volatile as they are frustrating, leaders at all levels are struggling with how to motivate their employees to greater productivity and commitment while avoiding the internal chaos and fear that is created through uncertainty.


(INTC) - Get Report

announced that they are freezing salaries from the CEO on down. At the same time,


(IBM) - Get Report

announced layoffs with a proposed expansion in India. Meanwhile, micro-rallies turn into mini-rallies only for gains to disappear in a day. At the same time


(WMT) - Get Report

announces losses, they also announce bonus-sharing with employees!

These are tough times to understand and even tougher times to lead. With the expectations that leaders not only set direction but also inspire performance, it is hard to keep the troops engaged in the battle without entirely overwhelming them with the severe situation. Panicked employees are not productive, employees inspired by challenge are.

It is not difficult to identify teams and companies that are suffering from a culture of panic:

There is a feeling of a lack of control

Whether or not this is the case, employees feel they have neither control nor influence in their future. This lack of control leads to a natural desire to do whatever we can to re-exert control which in some cases leads to losing very talented people.

There are rapidly changing priorities

Rather than accommodating the ambiguity that occurs in a change process, many leaders announce each new challenge as the priority. Teams and organizations in panic try to chase everything that comes along as possible solutions to the problem.

Communication is emotional and sporadic

Inconsistency breeds anxiety. When the boss seems out of control, employees feel that things must be even worse than they appear. A break in the usual communication flow within an organization indicates to employees that "things are going on" without clarifying what those things are.

There are more and more "secrets"

When employees do not know exactly what is going on behind the closed doors (or in the small hallway conversations) they fill in the gaps. When managers are called into top secret meetings and the communication flow stops, employees have nothing left besides worrying about what might be going on.

There is a higher degree of micromanagement

In teams and organizations experiencing panic, leaders sometimes decide that they must take matters into their own hands in order to "calm" their employees. However, the result is that employees become less and less engaged in the activity. This lack of engagement leads to a lack of confidence which eventually contributes to the chaos of panic.

On the other hand, leaders can impact this environment to create the urgency and involvement that is necessary to pull the group together to face the challenges head on. Leaders who wish to create a sense of urgency can do so by focusing on the following:

Establish a sense of influence for the team

It is not necessary for team members to feel that they have complete control over the situation or their future. Most of them are going to be smart enough to understand that times are critical. Nonetheless, successful leaders focus their groups on the areas they can influence and not on the universe as a whole.

Focus on transparency

Even if you tend to share the inner workings of leadership on a normal basis, in times of crisis, leaders need to fight the pull to secrecy and become as transparent as possible in their decision-making and in their true priorities. Uncertainty is a seed for panic, so the openness of a transparent leader brings confidence to the team even if all the answers have not been determined.

Look for the light at the end of the tunnel

Leaders have to be realistic, especially in times of extended challenge. But leaders are also dealers in hope. To challenge your followers to engage in the issues, they need to see that there is the possibility of success.

Engage your followers in the journey

Similar to the issue of transparency, employees who are going through challenging times with their organization want to feel that they are contributing in the end. "Protecting" them from the challenges never works...they are smart people who watch the news, follow the market and hear the rumors. The more actively they can be invited to be part of the problem solving, the more they will gather behind the urgency of the issues.

Take the risk of empowering your people

Crisis makes many leaders feel they have to control decision making and actions. At the very time we need people to be highly involved in getting things done, our fear pushes us to limit their activities. Allowing for delegation and empowerment will not only motivate your followers, it will allow you more freedom to do what must be done by you. It will also give you and your employees the satisfaction of getting things done together.

Creating a sense of urgency is necessary in trying times. Without it, teams and organizations become complacent and at the mercy of the external forces around them. A sense of panic on the other hand can paralyze a group as they struggle with uncertainty. It is well worth the time to determine where your team stands today and to engage them fully in the coming months. You can't afford to miss the opportunity.

Leadership Development Specialist, L. Todd "Dr. Todd" Thomas PhD, M.S, M.A, is Founder of

IMPACT Consulting and Development

. Dr. Todd holds a PhD in Human Communication, Masters in Educational Psychology and a Masters in Interpersonal Communication. He was a professor at North Carolina State University and Indiana University before leaving for the corporate world. He led Organizational Learning at Rockwell Avionics and was the executive responsible for Organizational and Executive Development at Daimler Financial Services for 10 years.

Dr. Todd has coached and consulted with over 3000 leaders from 40 different countries spanning 4 continents. He has been featured on Fox Business News, the Wall Street Journal, the Street.com and other media and publications. He is a speaker, seminar leader and the author of "Leading in a Flat World: How Good Leaders Become Greatly Valued." Other titles include "Life Lessons for Leaders" and "Stop Wasting Your Time: Creating High-IMPACT Meetings" as well as the "Leadership Integrity Quotient(tm)" leadership assessment.