Great leaders don’t reach the height of success without facing their share of minor challenges and major crises. In fact, most outstanding leaders would say that working through difficulties made them even better. A truly great leader will rise to the top in troubling times, when difficult decisions are made and decisive action must be taken.
It takes someone with a clear vision and unstoppable fortitude to lead an organization through its worst times, whether they involve economic troubles, public relations nightmares or product failures. The following case studies demonstrate how three great leaders overcame serious difficulties.
Case Study #1: Southwest Airlines
How can an airline survive a government order to ground its entire fleet and shut down for days? After 9/11, all U.S. airlines were faced with this same crisis. One that succeeded through the difficulty was Southwest Airlines, already known for its outstanding customer service. Southwest’s passengers, flight attendants, pilots and ground crews were stranded all across the country after the terrorist attacks. But unlike their competition, Southwest’s leadership did more than just sit and wait. They encouraged employees to leverage their trademark fun approach to business and to help stranded customers enjoy themselves at the movies or the local bowling alley. And when the ramifications of the shutdown forced other airlines to cut staff, Southwest’s then-CEO, James Parker, announced just three days after 9/11 that the company would be keeping all of its employees, as well as issuing a profit-sharing payment.
Leadership characteristics like crisis management, creative problem solving and a strong belief in the company’s vision saw Southwest through this unimaginable situation. The CEO also protected his staff, which ultimately led to a stronger airline.
Case Study #2: Starbucks
Starbucks is recognized for treating its employees, also known as partners, well. The coffee giant offers insurance benefits, stock options and retirement plans. But back in 1997, Starbucks faced a crisis when tragedy struck and three employees were killed during a robbery in Washington, D.C. The outstanding leadership of CEO Howard Schultz was demonstrated when he flew straight to D.C. and spent a week with the co-workers and families of the three employees.
While some leaders might have stayed as far away as possible from this tragic situation, Shultz’s natural leadership traits prevailed. With compassion, approachability and a dedication to meeting his partners’ needs, he did what was right. As a result, the public viewed him and Starbucks more favorably.
Case Study #3: Toro
Toro, the lawn equipment manufacturer, is accustomed to lawsuits, due to the inherent hazards associated with using its machinery. During the late 1980s, the company was facing major financial troubles and put Ken Melrose in place as CEO. One of his first successes was reducing the company’s cost of lawsuits by implementing a new mediation policy, and invoking an important leadership trait: empathy.
Prior to Melrose’s tenure, Toro faced about 50 lawsuits every year involving serious injuries. He decided to switch to mediation to address product liability claims. This approach included sending a company representative to meet with people injured by Toro products, as well as their families. The goal was to see what went wrong, express the firm’s sympathy and attend to the family’s needs. One result of the new mediation policy was a 95% rate of resolving the company’s claims, along with significant cost savings.
Great leaders recognize problems and do what it takes to overcome them. They are open and empathetic, and let their values guide their actions.
Outstanding business managers can take a potentially disastrous situation and not only prevent it from becoming worse, but turn it into a positive outcome for the company. A leader uses a variety of leadership traits when taking an organization through turbulence:
Not all leaders possess all of these skills. While CEOs like Howard Schultz, Ken Melrose and James Parker have natural talent and leadership abilities, most managers of this caliber recognize their weaknesses, as well as their strengths, and take advantage of opportunities to develop their areas of weakness.
If you’re a business professional who seeks to become a great leader, you’ll need both experience and continuing education to develop your leadership skills to their highest potential. Today’s leaders can take advantage of online business courses, management courses, personal development and leadership certification programs to learn the skills that can lead any organization through challenging times. Leadership certification can help you emulate great leaders, like those who were at the helm of Southwest Airlines, Starbucks and Toro when these companies faced some of their most difficult crises.
See Frequently Asked Questions for online requirements, accreditation, class schedule and more.