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When Times Are Tough, Leaders Get Humble

October 12, 2022 Leadership
Theresa Welbourne
By Theresa Welbourne LinkedIn

People keep telling me how it feels harder to get things done. They usually blame it on the pandemic, but we can point to a number of different factors. Try the internet and the constant connections (and interruptions) now filling our lives. How about politics? What about the great resignation or inflation?

Whatever is making it feel harder to get things done, doing nothing isn't an option. And what I've found through my ongoing research is leaders respond to trying times in a very specific way: they rely on their immediate teams. While this may sound like business as usual, it's a dramatic change from their behavior during good times.

Random Act of Kindness

I almost didn't write this article, but an experience at CVS changed my mind. I was traveling out of state and stopped in to get a few things. The woman in front of me in the check out line had what felt like 100 questions. She couldn't figure out how to use her credit card (she never called it in to have it activated), and then didn't have enough money to pay. I couldn't see what happened, but either the cashier or the store made up the difference, and she finally left. I was irritated, but kept it to myself, smiled and checked out. I was thinking how this interaction supported the notion that at least some things are harder, but as I was going to leave, the cashier printed out a $5 credit to thank me for my patience.

What’s the moral of this story?

The last few years have made it harder to do some things. But they've also brought out the best in many of us. We have learned to wait for people’s video technology to work when it’s delayed or slow. We have been patient with last minute cancellations because people are needing to isolate or take care of sick friends, children, spouses or parents. It has also changed the way leaders are teaming with their peers. I’ve seen this phenomenon during a previous economic downturn, so I wasn't surprised to see it again, but it’s a dynamic worth exploring.

Related Article: Leaders Are Human Too!

When Leaders Exhibit Hope and Humility, 2009 Version 

It's often easier to focus on the negative than to notice the positive. That’s what I learned in my older research studies on leadership confidence (sample report from recession year of 2009). I have been conducting this study every year since 2003. The sample is a group of leaders from around the world, with roughly 40% from C-level jobs, and the rest made up of VPs, senior VPs, directors and managers.

During economic downturn years — and only in these years — we found an interesting break in the pattern of data. We discovered that in high-performing firms, confidence in the leadership team was higher than confidence in an individual leader’s own skills. However, in low-performing firms, confidence in “me” was higher than confidence in the team.

After digging into the comment data and asking leaders about this finding, we found that the tougher working climate resulted in leaders working together and relying on each other more than in the past. They realized how important it was to work with the other leaders to get things done. In that 2009 study cited earlier, leaders broke the pattern established between 2003 up to 2009 of being more confident in themselves than in their teams. Hope and humility describe how the act of being humble led these leaders to have more hope and care for each other, resulting in higher performance and growth in their firms, even during a downturned economy.

Related Article: Why Leaders Are Leaving

When Leaders Exhibit Hope and Humility, 2022 Version 

Our most recent data from 2022 produced the same pattern that we uncovered in 2009. The confidence data are reported out with a 1 to 5 scale (with 1 = not at all confident, and 5 = very confident). Below is a table with the results for high- and low-performing firms.


The last two years of COVID-19 combined with the numerous other issues playing out in our society is clearly taking its toll. Some things are harder, but when companies succeed in these times, they lean on each other and together succeed. Like my CVS story, sometimes it takes patience to see the greatness that people around you can offer.

Related Article: Thriving in Turbulent Times: The 5 Leadership Superpowers – The Present Futurist

What Happens When Times Get Better?

How can leaders retain what they learned during these tougher times? Those of us who teach and help entrepreneurs and those of us in leadership positions can do two important things:

  1. Teach change management skills. Be prepared for the next downturn. Teach leaders and employees the art and science of humility and when being part of a team may be more important than shining individually.    
  2. Continue to teach leaders to be team players not just leaders. The art and skill of working with others during times of high change needs to be part of all of our curriculum.

About the Author

Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne is professor in Entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama, and executive director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute.

​To learn more about these data or to engage with fellow leaders in the Group and Innovation Leaders Forum, contact her at twelbourn[email protected].


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