Personal, Wellbeing

Learning from difficult times: 9 lessons in leadership

This post is adapted from a talk I gave recently for Homeless Link to a group of CEOs and senior managers who lead homelessness charities.

In the winter 2014/15, I went through a difficult time in the charity I led.  

We hit a crisis in one of our main residential services due to some serious management issues. It was a high-risk service and was also our largest single commissioned contract. The problems implicated a number of staff and the service narrowly avoided having to close.  Later on, it would also lead to an employment tribunal. 

It was the only time so far in my working life when I had to withdraw from a family holiday due to work. My oldest son (who was 11 at the time) said to me ‘Is it all your fault?’ I found it quite hard to answer but remember saying ‘It’s not all my fault, but it is my responsibility.’

I enjoyed many great moments during my time at the charity: the opening of new services, memorable events and inspiring transformations for both people and projects.

But we always learn more from hard times than we do from the easy times. I want to share 9 lessons that I have learnt from the difficult experiences I have had in leading organisations and managing services.

The first 3 are to do with getting support:

1. Get peer support: having another CEO / senior leader who you trust is gold-dust.  I found being able to be honest with someone else doing a similar job was incredibly helpful. My friendship with Pam Orchard (former CEO of Providence Row, now Connection at St Martins) made a big difference to me. I will always be appreciative of the kindness, honesty and sound advice she gave me.

2. Ensure you have good Human Resources advice: however complex the clients, staff management is always the hardest thing.  Good HR advice is the pre-requisite for all other positive organisational change. Having procedures which are fair, up to date and well-implemented is the foundation for running a good organisation. Investment in good HR support is never wasted.

3. Strong governance is your friend: invest in your trustee board and use their skills.  I appreciated my board’s support during tough times, especially when they backed the decision to contest the tribunal claim. Successfully defending both myself and the organisation against false claims was vitally important for everyone involved. Leaders need to develop healthy mutual trust with their boards which enable honest discussions.

The next 3 are about leadership:

4. It’s what you do that counts: we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actions.  Most staff don’t want to hear about a leader’s good intentions – they want to see action. This is how they assess your quality as a leader. Have you implemented fair policies around pay and conditions? Have you sorted the issues with the rota? Have you addressed the toxic behaviour that ruins the work place? 

5. Be assertive: identify & address both external problems & internal ones. The charity world finds identifying external problems easy, but talking about internal weaknesses is far harder. I found using a simple SWOT framework an effective way of gathering everyone’s opinions about what was good and what needed to change. Therefore the strategy and action plan could be rooted in everyone’s feedback.

6. It’s not a short-term popularity contest: good forms of disagreement build trust & respect. The reason leaders are paid more is because its their responsibility to sort out the key issues. We need to draw confidence from other places (friends, family, professional network) so that we are secure enough to handle the disputes and difficulties that come with the job.  Some staff who were most upfront in disagreeing with me became the ones I trusted the most.

The final 3 are about personal conduct:

7. Be genuinely open to feedback: use 360 feedback and set the culture for self-awareness.  There nothing more important than establishing a positive culture and leaders have the key role in this task. After all ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.  It is challenging to receive negative feedback from your teams but its vital. After all, everyone has strengths and weaknesses and accepting this reality is liberating.

8. Gossip is corrosive: talk about other people behind their backs, they will do the same to you.  In times of stress it can be tempting and comforting to talk about people in loose and gossipy way. But its corrosive to trusting relationships. Try to say what you mean and mean what you say to the people you need to say it to.

9. Know when to leave the pub: don’t get embroiled in chaos. Leaders have a distinctive role within a team or organisation. Its good to socialise and spend time together, but there is also a time to leave the team and let them have conversations you don’t need to be part of.

To close, I believe good leadership is about knowing when to emphasise each side of this chart below.  Focussing solely on the left-hand side will make you popular for a time but that positivity will not last unless properly balanced with the right-hand side.  As ever, its all about managing the tensions of grace and truth…

6 thoughts on “Learning from difficult times: 9 lessons in leadership”

  1. This is an exceptionally wise and helpful post, obviously having learnt the hard way! Thanks so much for your honesty in sharing the most helpful points.


  2. This is so helpful. Learning through the hard times to walk in grace and truth is challenging but essential. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom in this blog. Organisations, churches, charities, governments and anyone in leadership (including me) would all benefit from taking on board this advice.


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