profileArticle Author


John Milsom

John Milsom



Cheshire Office
Tel: +44 1625 508100


Send John An Email

view allPrevious Articles

Developing leaders Strengthening Leadership Capability by Rachel Gascoigne
Maximise Opportunities How to Maximise the Chance of a Successful Hire by Adam Hillier

Candidate Guide

Provides information on different selection methods that you may encounter in your job search. Read The Candidate Guide

exploreWalk With...


Learn more about our friends in South Africa

Thought Leadership


Survival Leadership

In a brief respite from the doom and gloom surrounding the current economic situation, Intel announced their global profits were up 48% for the last quarter of 2010. They also reported a rise in revenues beyond market expectations, stating that 2010 had been the organisation’s best ever year. Some organisations seem to thrive during recessions. We believe that style of leadership will be a critical factor in determining who the winners and losers will be, and outline here four qualities that will be of particular importance over the next 12-24 months.


Whilst this might have been ‘a given’ during the better times, it has now moved up the agenda in terms of its importance. As the economic waters have become more perilous, so has the pressure on leaders. We have less time to make a larger number of crucial decisions, and have to do so in a harsher environment. The ability to personally cope has become even more important. Recent evidence from the survival psychology (the study of how people react in life and death situations such as plane crashes, getting lost in the wilderness, shipwrecks etc.) indicates that survival is dependent on the psychological characteristics of the individuals concerned, as much as their physical well-being or resources available to them. There are countless examples documented of perfectly healthy people giving up and dying (‘losing the will to live’) while other, more obdurate characters survive. How many healthy organisations will suffer the same fate?

The interesting question from survival psychology concerns why people die when they don’t need to. Crucially, the research points to survival being driven by the ability to recognise the need to adapt to new circumstances. In other words, survivors quickly accept that things have changed and different strategies are required. Resilience is also associated with the willingness to take personal responsibility for survival. Less resilient people freeze, bury their heads in the sand or simply give up. Psychologists term this a drop in goal directed behaviour and, unfortunately, it almost always precipitates physical demise. A third strand to resilience stems from the analysis of anecdotes from survivors of prisoner of war camps, who describe the importance of maintaining a realistic perspective on their predicament. POW survivors report that those who kept themselves going by holding onto unrealistic short term beliefs (eg “We’ll be rescued by Christmas”) often didn’t live much beyond these timescales, as their hopes were dashed and their spirits consequently crushed.

Survival therefore appears to be linked to maintaining an unshakable belief that you will prevail, combined with a crystal clear focus upon the realities of the situation. This empowers people to take action and keep control of their own destiny.  These factors are at play in organisations today. Those leaders who are surviving and thriving have kept their hopes alive in a grounded and realistic manner. They react quicker to changes in the environment, and are coping with the pressure they are under more positively. This is proving to be a crucial platform from which to lead others.


Whilst strong judgement naturally remains critical, the consequences of failing to make a decision when one is required can be equally terminal. The differentiator in survival situations is the willingness of leaders to continue to make bold decisions. Leaders with the ability to make the right calls will therefore remain valuable, but only when this is accompanied by the courage to use this judgement. As Frank Zappa sang, “without deviation from the norm, there can be no progress”.

Many leaders will choose to sit tight and ride out the storm, consciously deciding to miss a few boats rather than risk sinking the one they are in. However, bold decisions don’t have to involve putting everything at risk. Whilst it might be right to take fewer, more calculated chances, this shouldn’t mean none are taken at all.

We see a clear distinction between leaders prepared to back their own judgement, and those who are reluctant to do this. Survival psychology suggests that doing nothing is usually only slightly preferable to blind panic. Leaders need to be looking both for the big ideas and the incremental adjustments that will improve performance and/or efficiency. They must also not allow fear of failure to interfere with their willingness to delegate and empower. The people who are most likely to lead successfully within the current tough times will be those who are prepared to create, direct and maintain “goal directed behaviour” rather than simply waiting to be rescued (or die). Fear of sinking the boat should not prevent leaders from trimming the sails, changing its course or trusting the crew to sail it.


Napoleon famously described leaders as “dealers in hope”, and convincing research evidence reinforces the importance of doing this, particularly within dangerous situations. One fascinating (albeit macabre) study showed that when drowning rats were lifted from the water for a short time before being put back, they would swim for three times longer before giving up than those not given the ‘hope’ of rescue by being lifted out. As leaders, it is up to us to find ways of providing such hope to those around us.

This does not mean trying to be a superhero, or presenting staff with unrealistic expectations that everything will be back to ‘normal’ again soon. The days of leaders having all the answers are over. Instead, leaders should be expected to provide honest, authentic communication, inspiring belief in those around them.

Jonny Wilkinson describes an example of this in his book Winning Tackles. Recounting captain Martin Johnson’s words as Australia drew level 95 seconds before the end of extra time during the 2003 rugby world cup final, Wilkinson remembers that, as Elton Flatley converted the penalty to make the scores 17 all, Johnson called the team together: “Don’t panic. There is no need to panic. We still have plenty of time. We will win this game”. Poor leaders are hiding right now, they are conspicuous by their absence from the shop floor. The best leaders are visible and available.

External Awareness

Customer needs are changing faster than ever. Great leaders are staying closer than ever to these market shifts, and the factors that are driving them. This external awareness is the fuel that drives the other three characteristics. Resilience depends on noticing what has changed and how we need to adapt. Courage is dangerous without informed judgement, and a leader can’t hope to relate to those around them without an empathy for what is affecting them as individuals. It is therefore critical not to let internal concerns disrupt the flow of external insight. Just as great tennis players need an intimate knowledge of the ball they about to hit (direction, spin, velocity, bounce, court position) leaders need to keep their eye on their customers’ needs in order to stay ahead.

So What?

The stakes are high these days: a wrong move will not be punished with a neutral outcome, it cannot always be counterbalanced by the results of many other more successful decisions. The paradox is that survival within a new environment requires us to adapt and keep moving forwards while the natural reaction of many is to retreat, retrench or just do nothing. Resilience, Courage, Visibility and External Awareness provide a platform for moving forward, allowing the leader to put their organisation in the best possible position to survive and thrive.

Survival Leadership

Practical Tips


  • Review your situation honestly, identifying the positives without getting carried away and losing touch with reality
  • Regularly challenge your perceptions of your situation, whether previous assumptions are still valid today, and the validity of your actions
  • Motivate yourself by setting goals that are within your control (not by clinging to unrealistic short-term fantasies)


  • Concentrate on continually moving forwards (demonstrating "goal-directed behaviour")
  • Aim to take fewer and more measured risks (not none at all) and commit yourself to them
  • Continue to trust others, delegate and empower - you haven't got time to command and control


  • Spend time with your staff and make sure other senior leaders do the same
  • Communicate the situation and way ahead positively but honestly
  • Reinforce hope whenever possible, recognising 'wins' and progress whenever you can

External Awareness

  • Don't allow internal concerns to dominate your day
  • Rigorously gather and interpret external information (network, analyse customer feedback, monitor developments in relevant arenas e.g. technology)
  • Keep your customer/consumer/citizens in the room when making important decisions



Share This Thought Leadership Article

Enter the letters as they are shown in the image