If we could only offer one piece of advice to leaders in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, it would be this – keep the dry socks handy.

We all need some handy…..

In the trenches of World War I, particularly during the winter of 1914-1915, Trench Foot, as it later became known, was a serious and debilitating problem for the British forces.  The trenches in Flanders and France often sat below sea level and consequently were easily flooded. 

After hours and days of standing in soaking wet socks and boots, the painful condition would begin to set in.  The men’s feet would swell and go numb and then the skin would start to turn red or blue.  Untreated feet rapidly became gangrenous and would need to be amputated.

In order to minimise the chances of developing trench foot, soldiers were instructed to wash their feet and to change into dry socks as often as possible.  It was not unusual for soldiers and indeed their senior officers to wash one another’s feet during these difficult times.

Now, we are by no means comparing the socio-politically uncertain times in which we find ourselves with the horrors of WWI, but there is certainly a lesson in leadership here. 

When the going gets tough – and chances are it may this year – leaders must turn their attention more than ever to looking after their most valuable resource – their people.  In uncertain times, a creeping sense of insecurity can paralyse and stifle creativity and dynamic business development.  It’s during these times that leaders have to be able to demonstrate that they believe in their people and empower them to do their very best.

Empowerment takes many forms, but in this case, it is about understanding what the teams need to make it possible for them to do the (almost) impossible.  Leading by example (standing shoulder to shoulder in the mud) and demonstrating emotional intelligence (understanding the needs of your team and meeting these by cleaning their feet and ensuring a supply of socks) will go a long way to ensuring that your best and brightest stick with you and deliver for you, day after day. 

Bonuses cut? Budgets reduced? Recruitment frozen?  Consider what it takes to keep people motivated in light of a changing and challenging environment and incorporate it into your leadership strategy.  Remember that people do not work for ideas, they work for people.  And when the corporate climate is squeezed, loyalties are too.

So, if you want to take your people with you this year, remember to keep the dry socks handy.  No one’s going to follow you if they can’t walk.