With Martin G. Moore

Episode #224

Leading Through Major Upheaval: 90% attitude, and a dash of realism

There are many upheavals that you’re likely to experience throughout your career that will challenge you. And sometimes, they’ll push you to the very edge of your personal and professional capacity.

In my corporate career, I was fortunate to be involved in a number of significant business events, which stretched me well beyond my comfort zone. I realized that I needed to change my attitude and mindset, if I wanted to come out the other end with my sanity, health, and reputation intact!

At times like these, it’s not just about managing yourself, either: you have an obligation to your team to provide strong, stable, dependable leadership. You have to be the rock that they can cling to in the middle of a raging sea.

In this episode, I deconstruct the leadership attitude and mindset that you’ll need to adopt in times of major upheaval, and give you my 7 ‘watch-its’ to help you navigate the most common scenarios you’re likely to face.

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Episode #224 Leading Through Major Upheaval: 90% attitude, and a dash of realism

There are many disruptive events that you’re likely to experience throughout your career that are going to challenge you – and sometimes they’ll push you to the very edge of your personal and professional capacity. Throughout my corporate career, I was extremely fortunate to be involved in a number of really significant business events:

  • Being on the wrong end of a semi-hostile takeover

  • Acquiring another business

  • A major IPO on the ASX

  • Expanding into new geographies

  • Preparing for a trade sale; and

  • Forming new joint ventures.

I realized pretty quickly that I needed to change my attitude and mindset if I wanted to come out the other end of these situations with my sanity, health, and reputation intact.

At times like these, it’s not just about managing yourself. You have an obligation to your team to provide strong, stable, and dependable leadership. You have to be the rock that they can cling to in the middle of a raging sea. So, when your people look to you for leadership in the most turbulent times, what do they see? 


As I’ve mentioned, I went through some incredibly disruptive events during my corporate career – and it’s fair to say that some of them pushed me to the edge of my personal capacity. My pattern in times of extreme turmoil was to neglect my health. I’d replace my 5:00 AM run with another hour of sleep, and my go-to coping mechanism was just to drink more alcohol. I put all my energy into trying to keep my head screwed on straight, and absorb the pressure of the environment – for me and my people. Obviously, this comes at a cost, although I’m now much more comfortable and skilled at retaining some semblance of balance in times of extreme turmoil and upheaval.

Despite the toll, when I look back I am so grateful that I was in those situations. I never felt that there was anything I couldn’t ultimately handle, and the accelerated learning that I took from each situation really turbocharged my career. I couldn’t have achieved anywhere near what I did if I was leading people in a warm, stable, and comfortable environment. I came to really love and embrace major change. I relished the challenge of being the one person in the room who could be relied upon to stay calm, remain impartially rational, and keep my people focused and productive.

My observation on the back of all of this is that this is a differentiator for really successful executives. They don’t fear change, and they don’t recoil from challenge, conflict and adversity. They embrace it. But don’t forget, there’s a big difference between a smart executive and a great leader. Your goal is to be both.

Take a moment to think about how you react to major upheaval:

  • How do you feel inside?

  • What do you project to the people around you?

  • What do the other parties who aren’t in your camp see?

  • Do they experience you as a reliable, stable, and trustworthy individual?

Leading through any major event requires a level of resilience and self-control. It requires an attitude and approach that rises above the noise of our human fear, our anger, our frustration, and even our greed. It demands that we have grace under pressure: that state you achieve when your outward projection of calm is completely congruent with the inner calm that you’re feeling, because you know you’re going to be able to handle anything that’s thrown at you.


My first real experience of a major upheaval was being on the wrong end of a semi-hostile takeover. I’ve probably mentioned this before in previous podcast episodes, and I fleshed the story out more in our Leadership Beyond the Theory program. But I want to give you some insight into the takeover of MIM in the early 2000s, which I haven’t ever really spoken about before.

When the takeover bid was launched by Xtrata in 2003, MIM was considered to be a perennial under-performer on the ASX. It was one of the top 50 companies by market capitalization, and there was a perception that it was a great company with great assets – but that it had never quite been able to realize its potential: so the stock was probably undervalued. As a result, when the offer from Xtrata came in, the board was predisposed to considering, and ultimately accepting it.

However, the CEO thought that the bid was a low-ball that undervalued MIM – this is why I say the takeover was semi-hostile. The board was in favor of the transaction, while the CEO and many on the management team were against it, on the basis that it significantly undervalued the business. In the end, the shareholders accepted the deal and the rest is history.

But it’s what happened after that’s most interesting to me. I was the CIO, and I’d only been in the company for a short time – just over a year by the time the transaction completed. But, I’d been there long enough to craft and sell the strategy to the executive that would drive maximum value for MIM through use of its technology capability and platforms.

Well, guess what? The new owner had other ideas: a fundamental shift in the philosophy of how to run the company and therefore how to deliver the technology needs of the business. It was moving away from a centralized support capability for things like IT and HR, to one where each business unit could choose to do whatever it thought was best for its own purposes.

This meant we had to dismantle much of the work that had been done in the previous year – and in fact, in the years leading up to my arrival in the business. We had to dismember key components of the capability that we’d installed. We had to outsource certain core functions that we’d previously built capability for in-house. We had to deliver different solutions for each business unit, watching the scale economies that we’d built evaporate. We watched much of the value that we’d managed to create for MIM simply vanish.

But that wasn’t our problem.

To give you a brief overview of the principles that I used to lead through this tumultuous time, I took the following approach with my team:

“We will fight as hard as we possibly can to educate the new owners on why we’ve done things a certain way. 

“We’ll fight as hard as we can to show the new owners where we think the real value is in the company’s existing IT deployment. 

“We’ll fight as hard as we possibly can to make the new owners aware of the key risks we see in both the new model and the transition to it. 

“We’ll fight as hard as we possibly can so the new owners can understand the talent and capability that we’ve built in the current team. 

“But you know what? At the end of the day, it is completely up to them to make the decisions on what to do. It’s their prerogative as the owners of the business to decide how to deploy any of the resources at their disposal, even if we don’t necessarily agree with those decisions.”

This is where I learned a really important principle: you can’t care more about an outcome than the person who knows they’ll ultimately have to live with that outcome.

That’s where leadership became so important – I had to keep the team focused and productive through all of this. We had to support the company so that it could operate without any issues during the transition, while at the same time reshaping and recasting what that landscape looked like. To use the old cliché, we were rebuilding the plane’s engines while it was flying at 38,000 feet.

Many of the team were angry and resentful towards the new owners. A lot of their friends and colleagues had already lost their jobs, and many of those who were still there were at risk of losing their jobs once the transition was completed. Keeping them focused wasn’t easy, but I always came back to a few key messages:

“A lot of the decisions being made are out of our control, and we can’t afford to get all bent out of shape by that. 

“Our job is to execute on the decisions of our employer, and we need to display the ultimate level of commitment and professionalism while we do that. 

“This isn’t about the new owner, it’s about us and who we are. 

“We’re going to look back on this as being a defining chapter in our careers. The experience and skill we gain from this situation is going to make us more confident, capable, and better at what we do. We will be irresistible to future employers, no matter where the cards fall at the end of this process.” 

That attitude, and the focus it brought to the team, helped us to deliver a seamless transition to the new operating model.


What events are you likely to face, and what will be the most important things to you as a leader? Let’s take a quick fly over the top of a few of the scenarios that you’re going to face, and what the major challenges are going be in each case:

Acquiring new assets 

When you’re looking to acquire new assets, the biggest danger is White Line Fever. I’ve previously mentioned the acquisition of the Riversdale Mine in Mozambique by global mining giant, Rio Tinto. At a time where competition for new mining assets was fierce, Rio massively overpaid for RIversdale.

In a company that was known for its cool, analytical approach, emotion won the day. Rio’s fixation on getting the deal done – the White Line Fever, as I like to call it – caused them to overlook some glaringly obvious risks, and to make some heroic assumptions that could never have stacked up.

Rio paid US $3.7 billion to acquire the Riversdale mine in 2011. But as the problems unfolded in short order, they ended up selling it only three years later… for US $50 million – a little over 1% of its purchase price. Now, this is a cautionary tale about getting too fixated on any outcome that you might want.

Disposal of assets 

When you’re selling a business or a key part of a business, you may have an emotional attachment to that asset, but you have to see beyond that. I’ve seen some potentially awesome deals collapse because one of the parties has an unrealistic perception of the asset’s value.

Remember, the value is determined by the buyer, not the seller. You can think whatever you want about the value of what you’re trying to sell, but the market is going to tell you what it’s really worth right now. It’s hard to remove the emotion, but it’s essential to do that if you want to open the door to a successful transaction.

Taking on an equity partner 

Once again, this is a matter of perception when it comes to valuation. I occasionally catch an episode of Shark Tank – or even its forerunner, Dragon’s Den – if you’ve never seen these shows, entrepreneurs pitch for investment from the “Sharks”, and offer them equity in exchange for their capital, expertise, and connections.

When the offer is stated by the entrepreneurs, you can see how they value what they’ve built. For example, “We’re offering a 20% stake in the company for $100 thousand dollars.” In this case, that company would be valued at half a million dollars. But how do they come up with that number? Well, often it’s based either on what they’ve already invested, or perhaps on what they think they need to spend to take the company through its next phase of growth.

The Sharks, on the other hand, are likely to be looking at more useful valuation measures (like earnings multiples or discounted cash flow valuations). In the absence of this, it comes down to gut-feel and a sense of whether the product can be successful in the market.

The point is, once again, emotion can sometimes overwhelm reality, so it’s important to understand the economic principle of sunk cost. Any equity allocation should depend primarily on two things:

1. What the company is actually worth – not the sunk cost you’ve incurred as the founder.

2. What value the new equity holder can bring to the party. If you don’t secure their involvement, what’s the likelihood that venture can still be successful? This is going to determine how much of an equity slice you might be willing to part with.

Being on the wrong end of an M&A transaction 

You have to learn to put your self-interest aside – even though it’s times like these where this is often the hardest thing to do. Focus on your own professionalism and reputation. Remember that the experience you gain in this time will be invaluable in shaping who you are. It gives you wildly accelerated growth in experience and resilience. And as a leader, you give your people this gift as well.

Being on the right end of an M&A transaction 

I’ve got one word for you here: humility. There’s a huge temptation when you are the acquiring company to forcefully impose your will and have things done your way. But remember, there’s a reason why you’re acquiring the target company…

So, listen!

Listen to the people who’ve built the company that you’re acquiring. Listen to where they think you can maximize value. Sure, you have to make your own decisions, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I’ve seen that happen too many times.

A merger of equals

Sorry – my bad. No such thing! One company is always dominant in the process, no matter what the PR spin might be. If you’re struggling to work out which one is dominant, just look at who the Board appoints as the CEO of the combined entity. That’ll give you a clue. In this case, you’ll need to work out which end you’re on, and then apply the approaches I outlined in the previous scenarios.

This is just a grab bag of the types of events you’re likely to face in senior leadership roles, or if you’re running your own business. There are also things like:

  • Corporate restructures

  • Redundancy and cost cutting exercises

  • Outsourcing initiatives

  • IPOs

  • Trade sales.

The list goes on. The trick for you, as a leader, is to be able to bring the right mindset and attitude to those times so that you lead your people through them with strength and clarity of purpose – and that takes grace under pressure.


There are some universal principles that are going to make it easier for you to lead through times of major upheaval. Here’s my top seven:

1. Fight for the best outcome, no matter what 

This means you have to park your self-interest, and this can be really difficult in high stakes situations. But you’ll distinguish yourself in these moments.

Very few people can do this successfully, so your ability to fight for the right outcomes, for the right reasons, will stand out. It may not make a huge difference to the situation you’re in, but it’ll make an unbelievable difference to every career challenge you face from that point forward.

2. Remember, it’s not your call 

Often you can’t control the outcomes because you don’t own the decision rights. So work out where, and when, you don’t have control and then… let it go.

Having said that you have to fight hard for the best outcomes, this has its limits. If the decision makers choose a different path, try not to get bitter and twisted about that. Your job is to lead your team to execute on management intent to the best of your ability.

3. Always think of the other party first 

When you’re in a situation that requires agreement on things like an asset or company valuation, ask yourself what you want. Do you want to be right? Or do you want to do a deal? Fairly recently, I witnessed a $35 million deal that almost blew up, because of a disagreement over a few hundred thousand dollars.

The best way to do this is to exercise your empathy. Try to understand, to the greatest extent possible, what constitutes value for the other party. If you can’t find a way through this, you may end up shooting yourself in the foot.

4. Protect your people wherever you can 

Protecting your people from some of the vagaries of major upheaval is good leadership. But remember, they have a path to tread too. You will never be able to shield them completely, nor should you want to.

Whatever happens to an individual happens for a reason. Your job as a leader is to help them to see the meaning in what’s happening, even when it’s out of their control – and yours.

5. It’s not worth what you’ve put into it, it’s only worth what the market will bear 

Whenever you have to put a value on something that you own, do your best to take the emotion out of it. If you cling doggedly to your perception of value, you might miss an opportunity to capture its actual value. Value is in the eye of the beholder, so don’t be too rigid.

6. Where there’s a lot of uncertainty, there’s also a lot of opportunity 

This is a really important principle. I found that, in times of extreme turmoil and upheaval, there was a lot of open ground to run in. If you can manage to focus on the opportunity, and look optimistically at the potential a difficult situation offers, you’d be surprised how it can change your outlook.

7. Watch out for White Line Fever 

Don’t get transfixed on any outcome: that can lead to really big mistakes. Constantly ask yourself the question on the way through any deal, any proposed investment, or any major growth opportunity: based on what I’ve learned, does this still make sense?

This is going to give you a built-in opportunity to reevaluate the playing field whenever you learn something new. It could save you from your own Riversdale mine experience.

The bottom line is, if you can adopt the right mindset and attitude in times of major upheaval, you’ll find it much easier to lead a team through the challenges that inevitably arise. And that will distinguish you as a leader who can really lift, leading with confidence, optimism, and passion during those critical events.


  • Ep. #4: What is Leadership Really? – Listen Here

  • Ep. #29: Winning Without Self-Interest – Listen Here

  • Ep. #42: First, Create Value – Listen Here

  • Ep. #43: People Follow Resilient Leaders – Listen Here

  • Ep. #48: Building Trust & Managing Change – Listen Here

  • Ep. #56: Dealing with Change Resistance – Listen Here

  • Ep. #64: Redundancies and Restructures – Listen Here

  • Ep. #82: Leading Through Crisis – Listen Here

  • Ep. #103: When You’re Ready to Commit – Listen Here

  • Ep. #104: Balancing the Load – Listen Here

  • Ep. #131: The Emotional Toll of Leadership – Listen Here

  • Ep. #167: Getting Ahead of the Next Crisis – Listen Here

  • Ep. #182: What is Strong Leadership? – Listen Here

  • Ep. #189: Successful Transformation – Listen Here

  • Ep. #204: The Big Leadership Moments – Listen Here

  • Ep. #219: Intelligence is Overrated – Listen Here

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