Transitioning from a Peacetime to a Wartime Mindset

For companies and those who work for and manage them, continued success doesn’t come from remaining fixed to a certain way of doing things, but from the ability to evolve with the change they find themselves in.

Environments are always changing, and so are our markets. This creates a continuing problem for leaders. One leadership style may excel in one particular market, only to flounder in another. Each change in our environment requires a different focus. And each requires a unique type of leadership to navigate change appropriately. This reality should keep us on our toes. However, no matter how alert we might be, it can be tough to pin down what scenario we’re experiencing.

To avoid confusion, it’s easiest to simplify how we think about our work environments. While there are many possibilities, we commonly see one of two archetypes: peacetime and wartime.

In a peacetime environment, things look calm and stable. A company may be confident in its position in the market. It knows that it has an advantage versus its competitors that is likely to grow, so it can focus on its strengths and has a long-term timeline for accomplishing its goals.

In a wartime environment, on the other hand, all bets are off. It’s rough and rocky and there is no guarantee of survival. The future of the company is threatened, whether from its competitors, the market, the environment or in other ways. It must focus on overcoming the problems at hand rather than a long-term goal.

No matter how much we may excel in one situation, our approach and skills need to shift with our environment. Here’s how your leadership might differ in each environment.

Peacetime Leadership

Think back to a few short months ago. Unemployment was low, the stock market was high, and the economy was experiencing one of its longest period of continuous growth. Overall, this was a period of peacetime.

The emphasis on managing during these types of times is on building something great. Leaders during peacetime can share their long-term visions and get others to buy-into them. They set big goals with future targets for the company to achieve. Because they are operating in a time when they have a competitive advantage, they can focus on things like establishing values, building a great culture and ensuring that employee satisfaction is high.

Stability gives us the luxury of being able to focus on these things. And in stable times, a steady approach can pay dividends. The skills required to lead are the same ones that enable us to think ahead. It also allows us to take calculated risks because the consequences of failure, while still hefty, are less painful.

Wartime Leadership

But when something like a worldwide pandemic strikes, everything changes. Leadership that emphasizes working toward future goal is no longer the right approach because the future is uncertain. At this point in time, we should be more concerned about survival. It’s wartime. And it requires a different style of leadership.

Wartime managers have a different responsibility than peacetime managers. Rather than seeing their long-term goals through to fruition, wartime managers have to become more concerned with the challenges of the here and now. This requires the ability to realistically evaluate the situation at hand to determine a new normal. Things change and change rapidly in a wartime environment, and managers who excel in this chaos understand that previously successful strategies can’t be relied upon to achieve future success. So, they become more flexible to the situation of the moment.

Successful managers in this environment also understand that their relationships with employees has also changed. While clear expectations are always beneficial, wartime managers understand that they can best engage their employees by giving them a clear, realistic lay of the land — no matter how dire it may seem.

Leaders aren’t the only ones who feel the impact of uncertainty. Employees feel it, too. When employees know how they can excel in the eyes of their managers during this time, they can adapt more easily to the change that surrounds them.

As Harvard Business Review explains, wartime managers “seek order rather than control.” They don’t micromanage. Instead, they trust their employees to meet the expectations provided given the information they have.

While peacetime leaders want to unite their workforce, working together for the same mission is absolutely necessary during a wartime environment. And good wartime managers show how each employee has a direct hand in moving the company’s mission forward during a time of crisis.

Consider how the flour company, King Arthur Flour, is handling their current market in the face of crisis. While shortages in certain products can be expected during difficult times, few foresaw how many people would turn to baking as a form of therapy during this pandemic. It’s caused a worldwide flour shortage.

King Arthur Flour worked hard for over 300 years earning the reputation of a dependable brand for customers. And now it had vanished from store shelves. To combat the shortage, they needed to pivot. So, the company put all hands-on deck.

First, King Arthur Flour formed a crisis response team, which met via video chat three times a day, every day, for the first several weeks after the initial surge in demand. As their co-CEO Karen Colberg explained:

“The first thing we had to do was agree on what we could accomplish…During a crisis there are a lot of problems to solve, and you won’t be able to solve them all. We decided the one we had to solve was how to get more all-purpose flour to consumers.”

Every action of every employee from that point forward was made with this mission in mind. They added shifts to help get the flour into the hands of their consumers at their own facilities, added new fulfillment centers and changed their delivery process of the product from trains to trucks to increase their flexibility. They went into business with a partner who could add to their product line. And employees whose jobs were not transferable to their homes were taught new skills so that they too, could help the company get more flour to consumers. All the steps they took, and there were many, helped the company to virtually triple its monthly output to about 7 million bags of flour.

Master Your Environment

While it’s possible to excel as both a peacetime and wartime manager, it’s not easy. To be the right manager for each environment scenario, you must apply differing skills to each situation. And as Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz argues:

“Mastering both wartime and peacetime skill sets means understanding the many rules of management and knowing when to follow them and when to violate them.”

How have the management techniques within your company shifted as the environment has changed? Chime in on our Facebook page and tell us what’s working and what’s not!

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