This weekend, as pure escape, I went to see Iron Man 2 at my local cinema. I really just wanted to immerse myself in some “techie” gadgets and sci-fi action. Consequently, I was surprised to realize that as the movie played out, I was focusing on leadership and the critical skills leaders need to survive turbulent times. As a woman CEO, I could empathize with Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow’s character) and her unexpected rise to the CEO position. While she knew a lot about Stark Industries’ history and operations, she had little preparation for leading it. Here are three leadership lessons revealed in the movie that are important to remember during the tough times leaders face in real life.
- Cultivate a sense of vitality and a passion for learning, even when learning is hard—When we first take on a leadership role we are usually excited and energized by the opportunity, and indeed, this was Ms. Potts’ reaction. But as the movie illustrated, tough times can wear down our initial excitement and energy. Our goals start to seem more difficult to achieve as we find ourselves in unchartered waters, or perhaps competing harder for each new opportunity. It’s easy to begin to question—and even to doubt—ourselves as leaders. That’s why a sense of vitality and a passion for learning are so critical. Leaders who thrive in difficult times demonstrate energy, vibrancy, and self confidence. They stoke themselves on the challenge. They use their creativity and curiosity to cultivate a learning mindset that enables them to ask the right questions, solve new problems, and consistently improve their performance.
- Demonstrate accountability and responsibility—Who wouldn’t want to take responsibility when things go wildly right? Those are the “feel good” moments that invigorate leaders and build our confidence. But the best leaders push themselves to demonstrate accountability and responsibility when the situation is more difficult. There’s a scene in Iron Man 2 in which Ms. Potts is standing on the steps of a pavilion with bedlam erupting around her. Instead of seeking security and safety, she holds firm, takes responsibility and commits to staying until things are stable. Many leaders will feel a real kinship with her at that moment. Although we didn’t have to contend with missiles and lawlessness last year, the situation has required that we step up, be present for and accountable to our employees and customers, and be responsible for the actions we take.
- Be resilient—Resilience is the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change. Psychologically speaking, it has been described as the ability to adapt and bounce back after a major stress or disruption. The authors of The Secrets of Resilient Leadership contend that adversity is the true test of leadership, and resilient leaders are defined by what they do during the worst of times, not the best of times. As leaders, we have had ample opportunity to test our resilience during the recession. Some of us have been able to pull ourselves and our firms up by the boot straps; others of us may have faltered. But in each case I surmise we’ve proven ourselves to be more resilient than we originally thought.
This final leadership lesson on resilience is taught as a negative example in the movie. After a brief but hectic time at the helm, Ms. Potts is begging to relinquish her leadership position. Too bad that no one pointed out to her the things she did right and offered to support and help her enhance her natural skills. Let’s remember that it is through the difficult times that we test ourselves and recognize our strengths and leadership development opportunities. What leadership lessons has the recession taught you?