The Time for Entrepreneurial Leadership is Now

There was a notable moment regarding leadership in the movie U-571, the 2000 academy award-winning film about a World War II German submarine and the U.S. naval personnel who captured it. That instance arose when Matthew McConaughey’s character was suddenly the executive officer of the U.S. crew when its captain had to be left behind. In the time of chaos and uncertainty, the crew looked to the new leader for something that your associates need from you now.
Aside from the movies, we are not well-practiced in managing through recessions. In this present economy, I can relate to McConaughey’s character as an entrepreneur. A submarine has a small crew — confined, vulnerable, close-knit and having finite resources — with a stark loneliness about its mission amid bigger competition and raw environment. Add to the circumstances the increasingly visible image of gloom with publicized layoffs, consumers’ shuttered pocketbooks and credit unknowables, and we get something that can kill the entrepreneur’s company from within: Doubt.
An upstart company carries with it the well-known fact that it is a riskier ride for everyone aboard. Do you think your associates aren’t thinking about this fact? Would you be hedging your personal risk if you were them? What can you do about it?
At the moment of opportunity for McConaughey’s character, he is pressed for guidance. The crew is looking to him for his confidence, style, demeanor, faith and strategy. Essentially, members of the crew will judge his confidence about their chances of survival and seeing brighter days.
Harvey Keitel plays chief of the boat alongside McConaughey. As the crew is huddled around McConaughey with great expectations amid chaos, his response about what they should do is: “I don’t know.” While honesty and humility is a gift that leaders can bestow for everyone’s benefit, such forthright talk alone is not acceptable under duress. Keitel’s character rebukes McConaughey, saying, “A captain always knows what to do, whether he does or not.”
Your Leadership Opportunity
A leader within a company is not just the chief executive. Any man or woman to whom others look for guidance is in the position to either add or remove doubt in his or her associates’ minds and the minds of their customers. Doubt lowers productivity on the job.
There is “healthy” uncertainty versus “unhealthy” doubt. One is motivating and the other is cancerous to your company. In my experience, associates will form their own doubts when information is absent.
You should be able to articulate confidence in sustainability and a course of action. You should remind your team that you have confidence in them as well. Whatever entrepreneurial bravado you had at the kick-start, bring it out again now and increase the volume.
If you fail your captain’s test, the commitment level around you will have eroded when you need it most. Alternatively, if you communicate with some certainty and reach out to people frequently, you can erase doubt in the minds of your associates while external forces oppose you. You cannot steer a ship that is paralyzed in fear. Set a course through this recession in which you firmly believe your company can arrive intact in some form. Your job in a downturn is not only strategic but also about retaining the hearts of minds of your crew.
Mike Whitaker is the founder of Idea Gateway, an entrepreneurial business development company.

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