As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gunter Swoboda.
Gunter is a psychologist, speaker, author, mentor, coach and facilitator with over 30 years’ experience in counselling and organizational development.
After more than 30 years’ experience Gunter’s passionate perspectives on what makes human beings thrive makes him a very insightful commentator and speaker. His aim is to stimulate your mind, touch your heart, and inspire your soul. Gunter’s passionate perspectives and scrutinies on what makes human beings thrive allows him to develop relationships with people in order to ignite their aspirations. Gunter is exceptional in facilitating outcomes in learning, productivity and communication by providing a safe environment with unobtrusive assistance and guidance wherein participants experience the flow between content and context.
Swoboda is the creator of the Making Good Men Great movement and the author of Surfing the New Wave of Masculinity: Making Good Men Great. He also has an upcoming novel, Mountains of Sea, with Winterwolf Press.
Recently, Gunter was a Consulting Producer on Lifelines a film directed by Miranda Spigener-Sapon, Starring Lew Temple and Ross John Gosla. He just signed another book deal with Winterwolf Press co-authored with his wife Lorin Josephson for their Brian Poole Mysteries trilogy. Gunter is also the writer/creator of the documentary feature, Masculinity That Inspires Change, on Amazon Prime, an entrée film to the docu-series, The Crisis of Man.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My family migrated to Australia from Austria when I was twelve years old. I fell in love with the ocean and the land. Because I had to learn English, I wasn’t a very good student initially and focused more on surfing, music and girls. I ended up working in a bank for two years which really didn’t suit me or the Bank too well. Because I felt stuck, I was open to taking a day off and going with a friend to his University lecture in first year Psychology. In ten minutes, he was asleep, and I was hooked. Unfortunately, I could attend because I had no entrance qualifications. I ended up doing my SAT equivalent studies of two years in one. It was a struggle but worthwhile.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
First day of University was enrollment day. When I handed my academic program to the advisor, she looked at it and then asked, “Are you doing a Psych major?” ‘Yes”, I replied, puzzled. “Well, you can’t be. You have not included the required Stats courses.’ I was shattered. I was always bad at anything mathematical and Statistics seemed worse than math. Fortunately, the course convener assured me that they have lots of students in the same frame of mind and they help them through. I subsequently revised my program accordingly. The take-away for me was not to panic, ask for help and with enough determination most of the time we can. succeed. It’s mostly about attitude and discipline.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The most important person in my life that is equally responsible for my success is my wife, Lorin. Right from my early days at University she stood by me and kept me focused even when I had doubts. She appears to have a never-ending conviction in me. Without her, I don’t think I would have got through my Psych degree.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
This may sound corny, but my choice of becoming a psychologist was to help people. That was my purpose and it’s also my purpose in business. My vision was to make a difference. In the early days it was about one person, one couple, one family at a time. I then started to focus more on men and as I’ve gotten older my drive is to help men understand themselves better, be able to participate in a program of change and get good at building networks to keep them physically and psychologically healthy.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I believe you need to build the foundation of the business and that is not the product or the revenue. It is its people. Good leadership is serving the people that work with you to stay on course. A great business leader will learn to understand themselves better so that they build close relationships and foster clear communication that delivers the Vision of the business, its culture and its aspirations. A great leader will then focus on shaping the culture of the business. Culture drives behavior through the values that are core to the business.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Once I was in business, giving up was never an option. What I learnt was that I needed to evolve myself awareness and keep evolving it. Nothing stays the same. With it came the second principle; flexibility. One of things I learnt in surfing was that my mind needs to be open to the changes in the ocean and on the wave. I also needed to be physically flexible. This would allow me to rapidly adapt to the changing environment. This fed my resilience even when the going was tough.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To be authentic, to be truthful and to be there to support the people who have placed their trust in you. That may not always be optimistic and positive, but I believe that people can cope with almost any challenge provided that they feel acknowledged and have ownership in their part of the work. As a leader in challenging times I need to step up their level of co-operation with one another.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Maintain a healthy team culture. They need to be able to have each other’s back. In this situation there is no room for a narcissistic show pony that is hopeless with people. As a leader I need to accept that I don’t have all the answers, so consult with your staff but don’t let them seduce you with what you want to hear. If it’s bad news, put it on the table and find a way to deal with it constructively. By the way, my team should already be engaged, inspired and motivated before we face a crisis. The crisis is simply a change in the landscape to which we need to adapt to. Furthermore, it may also be a source of opportunities that may help us go beyond simply surviving. The real outcome can be that we will thrive in the new landscape.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With honesty, humility and respect. Treat them as adults who have a vested interest.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
If you want predictability, then get out of the game because you and your business will stagnate, and you’ll die of boredom. I believe that predictability is a cognitive trick we play because our brain seeks out patterns. Are they real? Who knows? I tend to subscribe to the uncertainty principle in Quantum physics, which states that there is a fuzziness in nature, a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behavior of things and, therefore, the smallest scales of nature. Of these scales, the most we can hope for is to calculate probabilities for where things are and how they will behave. So, at best, I may be able to intuit risks but will never eliminate risks. Therefore, embrace change.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
In Yiddish there is a phrase ‘Be a mensch.’ A mensch, in Yiddish, is a person of integrity, morality, dignity, with a sense of what is right and responsible. Be that and help other to be the same. Your business and the world will ultimately be a better place for it.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
To answer this, I’m going to talk to the leaders and not to an entity called business. That entity is only as god or bad as its leader(s).
The first mistake is it not accept crisis. To try and wish it away. Stay with what is and not with what it was or how it should be.
The second mistake I see is leaders abdicating responsibility for how they are dealing with the difficult times.
The third mistake is to believe that you and only you have the answer. That is called hubris and it’s a deadly disease.
Now the fourth mistake is to believe that by being competitive you will win against the odds. Let me suggest that collaboration within the business and with the marketplace will probably work better.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I am essentially a health service provider, so my business grows in turbulent times. In this I am fortunate, but I am also aware that this is not the case for most businesses. At this time, the hospitality and travel industry has been hit the hardest and it would be arrogant for me to suggest that my strategies would be of help to them. I do think however, that some principles that I have spoken about earlier can be a good starting point to developing more industry specific strategies. I think the key is to shore up a ‘can do’ attitude. Again, the principle of being flexible to be able to respond is really important. I was amazed, for example, by how many restaurants could suddenly mobilize their products to a delivery service and out to their customers.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’m probably going to repeat myself here but the key in leading in turbulent times is having put the groundwork in when there is no crisis. Envisage being the leader you want to be in good times and the bad. Build your relationships with employees and stakeholders around that. Make sure that communication is clear and honest and can cascade through the business. The pandemic has highlighted this as much as anything else.
Secondly, it is important that a leader maintains a culture that is flexible enough to adapt to the changes in the marketplace. I think this is especially important in the areas of manufacturing and supply chain management.
The third issue is that collaboration and strategic alliances can help a business to survive difficult times. Many leaders are too territorial and loss adverse. This can severely hamper their ability to sail through the rough seas.
Number four: Be creative. This is a co-operative process. It’s amazing from whom you can get great ideas from. I remember a CEO of a large company catching up with one of the janitors in the company on a regular basis for a cup of coffee. They would chat quite openly about lots of things from family to business and the word in the corridors.
Finally, and most importantly plan for the bad times. Things go in cycles. Read and learn to understand history. That doesn’t mean things are predictable but there are cycles. We are currently in a place in history where we are being challenged at every level, environmentally, politically with conflicting and deeply divisive ideologies, economically and psychologically.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“No Pain, No Gain.” As a surfer and business leader I learnt that we need to feel stretched out of our comfort zone. Mine most definitely started with University. And it hasn’t stopped.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Through the movement: www.GoodMenGreat.com, www.GunterSwoboda.com, my podcast ‘Inspire change with Gunter on iHeartRadio: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/966-inspire-change-with-gunter-47508652/ and’ soon to be published ezine MANifest. You can also follow me on Twitter: @GunterSwobda Instagram: GSwoboda and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/goodmengreat /