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Careers: Lead Like Fonzie

Leadership can be stressful. Being pulled in a million different directions, always having to bring your “A game,” having 100% of the accountability without 100% of the responsibility. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) recently conducted a study on the stress of leadership. In it, they were able to identify what and who causes stress. At the top of the “what” list was a lack of resources and time.

Leadership can be stressful. Being pulled in a million different directions, always having to bring your “A game,” having 100% of the accountability without 100% of the responsibility. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) recently conducted a study on the stress of leadership. In it, they were able to identify what and who causes stress. At the top of the “what” list was a lack of resources and time. At the top of the “who” list were the bossy boss, competitive peers, poor-performing direct reports, and unreasonable customers.

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Unfortunately, stress doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In the workplace, all eyes are on you. Your boss, direct reports, peers, the guy who comes in to water the plants in your office…everyone looks to people in leadership roles to see how they are going to react to stressful situations. As my boss once told me, sometimes people base their reaction to a situation on how they see you react. If you fly off the handle, they might do so as well. So what’s a leader to do? Lead like Fonzie.

If you’re not familiar with Arthur Fonzarelli, or “the Fonz,” he was a character played by Henry Winkler on the 70s sitcom Happy Days and he was known for two things—1) being a ladies man and 2) being the very definition of cool. For the purpose of our discussion, we’ll focus on only his coolness and how it allowed him to become an effective leader. Leader, you might ask? “Correctamundo.” To the degree that he had willing followers named Richie Cunningham, Ralph Malph, and Warren “Potsie” Weber.

In almost every episode, Richie, Ralph, and Potsie were faced with a stressful situation. And they always looked to the Fonz for guidance on how to react to, and handle, tough situations. Because he was able to keep his cool, he was able to help them navigate those stressful situations. Things would have turned out much differently if he had been overly emotional. Even when things seemed bleak, his unflappable response was to flash the “thumbs up” to let everyone know that all would turn out well.

As a leader, how should you behave in a stressful situation that affects your whole team?
Communicate. Share as much as you can about the situation at hand. People don’t like to be left in the dark when it comes to important issues. Make sure you maintain clear channels of communication.

Reassure. Don’t assume your team doesn’t need to hear that everything is going to be okay. They might not have access to the same information as you do and they might cling to assumptions and rumors without your reassurance.

Remain calm. Remember, all eyes are on you. What you say is important, but how you react can have even greater impact. Take a few seconds to take the emotion out of the situation and gather your thoughts before you respond verbally or nonverbally. Then maintain your calm throughout. It’s amazing how comforting this behavior will be on your team.

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But if things remain tense, and the team needs another sign, you’ve got one: Flashing the old “thumbs up” will work every time.

Shawn Graham is an Associate Director with the MBA Career Management Center at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (courtingyourcareer.wordpress.com).

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About the author

Shawn Graham partners with small businesses to create, implement, and manage performance-driven marketing strategies. His knowledge base includes media relations, business development, customer engagement, web marketing, and strategic planning

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