Some leaders are wired for crisis while others are more focused on building the culture of their company. Team leader Adam Hergenrother looks at how the natural leadership styles of peacetime and wartime leaders differ and how they are suited to different market conditions and phases of growth.

Adam Hergenrother is the founder and CEO of Livian. He believes that business is nothing but a conduit for personal growth and embraces the company’s vision to Love How You Live. When he’s not leading and growing his organizations, you can find Adam either in the mountains or out in nature with his wife and three children.

There are two different times in a business — peacetime and wartime. Companies will ebb and flow and experience both over the course of their lifecycle.

Peacetime in business is generally when a business has a competitive advantage, and its market is growing. Wartime in business is when the business is facing an immediate threat from a competitor, the economic climate or a major market shift. 

For the past two years, some companies and industries, like real estate, were experiencing peacetime while others had to shift into wartime mode — healthcare, retail and restaurants.

Oftentimes, startups need to put on their wartime hat to get their company off the ground and into growth mode. Or, if a company is experiencing peacetime, a leader needs to know when to put on their wartime CEO hat and push the company to disrupt itself before they are forced to by their competition.

And a wartime leader needs to know when the battle is over and when it’s time to transition into peacetime. It’s a delicate dance, but leaders need to understand how to navigate these various phases of the business and adjust their leadership accordingly. 

Here’s a really great explanation of the peacetime CEO vs. wartime CEO from The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz:

  • Peacetime CEO knows that proper protocol leads to winning. Wartime CEO violates protocol in order to win.
  • Peacetime CEO focuses on the big picture and empowers her people to make detailed decisions. Wartime CEO cares about a speck of dust on a gnat’s ass if it interferes with the prime directive.
  • Peacetime CEO builds scalable, high-volume recruiting machines. Wartime CEO does that, but also builds HR organizations that can execute layoffs.
  • Peacetime CEO spends time defining the culture. Wartime CEO lets the war define the culture.
  • Peacetime CEO always has a contingency plan. Wartime CEO knows that sometimes you gotta roll a hard six.
  • Peacetime CEO knows what to do with a big advantage. Wartime CEO is paranoid.
  • Peacetime CEO strives not to use profanity. Wartime CEO sometimes uses profanity purposefully.
  • Peacetime CEO thinks of the competition as other ships in a big ocean that may never engage. Wartime CEO thinks the competition is sneaking into her house and trying to kidnap her children.
  • Peacetime CEO aims to expand the market. Wartime CEO aims to win the market.
  • Peacetime CEO strives to tolerate deviations from the plan when coupled with effort and creativity. Wartime CEO is completely intolerant.
  • Peacetime CEO does not raise her voice. Wartime CEO rarely speaks in a normal tone.
  • Peacetime CEO works to minimize conflict. Wartime CEO heightens the contradictions.
  • Peacetime CEO strives for broad-based buy-in. Wartime CEO neither indulges in consensus-building nor tolerates disagreements.
  • Peacetime CEO sets big, hairy, audacious goals. Wartime CEO is too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand.
  • Peacetime CEO trains her employees to ensure satisfaction and career development. Wartime CEO trains her employees so they don’t get their ass shot off in the battle.
  • Peacetime CEO has rules like “we’re going to exit all businesses where we’re not number one or two.” Wartime CEO often has no businesses that are number one or two and therefore does not have the luxury of following that rule.

Whether you’re in the middle of a crisis (wartime) or experiencing tremendous growth (peacetime), leaders naturally tend to favor one leadership style over another. Personally, I’m more of a wartime leader. And I bet you lean to one side or the other, too.

It’s important to understand which way you lean when managing crises. Neither one is better than the other; it simply comes down to self-awareness. Own who you are and understand that your natural leadership style may need to be adjusted based on your company’s needs.

A natural wartime leader needs to recalibrate during peacetime, just as a natural peacetime leader needs to adjust during wartime. Or, if you’re not willing to do so, you may need to change companies and align yourself with an organization that can use your skillset based on the phase they are in.

A peacetime leader may spend their time optimizing systems and processes, holding lengthy roundtables about culture and employee/agent career development, creating strategies to expand their current market, and developing complex plans (with several contingency plans in place).

A wartime leader may spend their time asking for forgiveness rather than permission, allowing the work and the mission to attract the right talent and define the culture, creating strategies to win the market, developing short-term plans and then adjusting on the fly to drive results. 

It’s valuable to know which phase your organization is in and which leadership style you need to employ. Neither peacetime nor wartime lasts forever. Great leaders understand how to navigate each.

While times of uncertainty (market shifts, a global pandemic) don’t necessarily equate to a crisis (lawsuits, employee fraud, a deal gone south), many of the same leadership skills can be applied to both situations. The key is to be ready for whatever your business (or the world) throws your way. Crises are much easier to manage when you’ve built up the emotional fitness and stamina ahead of time. 

Is your company experiencing wartime or peacetime right now? Are you more naturally a wartime or a peacetime leader? How do you need to adjust your leadership style to best serve the organization? 

Adam Hergenrother is the founder and CEO of Livian, the author of The Founder & The Force Multiplier, and the host of the podcast, Business Meets Spirituality. Learn more about Adam’s companies and culture here.

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