We tend to measure performance by what happens when things are going well. Yet how people, organizations, companies, leaders, and other things do on their best day isn’t all that instructive. To find the truth, we need to look at what happens on the worst day.
“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. ”—Publilius Syrus
We laud athletes on a winning streak, startups with a skyrocketing valuation, hedge funds seeing record-breaking returns, and so on. But it’s easy to look good when everything goes according to plan and circumstances are calm. Anyone can succeed for a while, even if it’s just out of pure luck. It’s no great feat to do well if you’re not being challenged or tested. Watching what happens during a downswing is far more instructive.
Products and services are only as good as they are when they break, not when everything is functioning fine.
When a program stops working, do you face a baffling error message with no further guidance or clear instructions for how to get help? Is customer service quick and easy to access at any time or does it require you to jump through endless convoluted hoops? Even if you’ve had a positive view of a product or service for years, a problem that takes forever to fix or a hostile response when you ask for help will no doubt make you take your business elsewhere.
From a customer standpoint, companies are only as good as how they behave in a public relations crisis.
Do they shirk blame and try to pin it elsewhere or do they take responsibility? Do they try to cover up what happened or do they come forward with the full truth? Do they ignore any damages or do they promise to make things better for everyone affected—no matter the cost? Reputations are fragile. One incident of bad behavior will linger in the minds of customers for a long time.
From a financial standpoint, companies prove their worth when they show how they cope when something fundamental changes in the market or there’s a financial crisis.
Do they keep persisting with the old business model under the illusion that what worked before should work again or do they reimagine their approach? Do they fire staff to preserve CEO bonuses or do they play the long game to ensure they’ll be able to attract top talent in the future? Do they crumble when there’s a powerful new competitor or do they rise to the challenge? Like companies, investors might be able to perform well in ideal conditions due to luck. But when the market crashes and there’s blood in the streets, very few will know how to cope or be prepared. Only the smartest will know how to survive or even profit.
Leaders are only as good as how they lead during times of uncertainty and fear.
Do they hide away from public sight or do they serve as a reassuring, sympathetic presence that brings everyone together? Do they do what’s defensible or what’s best for everyone in the long run? Are they forced to react in the moment or were they already prepared? Ask anyone to name the finest leaders in the history of their country and they’re not likely to name those who were in power during calm, peaceful times. They’ll name those who were at the helm during wars, economic crises, pandemics, natural disasters, and so on—those who never wavered from a vision and whose consistent, empathetic appearances gave people a sense of hope.
As individuals, we tell people the most about who we are when everything goes wrong. These times are also when we stand to learn the most about ourselves.
Your kids might not remember how you behaved on a relaxed, sunny Saturday when work went well all week and you had little on your mind beyond playing with them. But they’re sure to remember how you behaved on the day when you’d lost your job due to a recession, you’d just had an argument with your partner, an unexpected bill arrived in the mail that morning, and then someone spilled spaghetti sauce on the couch. That’s the day when your behavior has the most to show them about what to model in the future.
Your partner might not remember how you treated them when you were lying on a beach on holiday together with all of your worries far away and a good book in hand. But they’re sure to remember how you treated them when you had your worst disagreement ever, over a problem that seemed insurmountable and involved complex emotions. That’s the moment when they might well make a decision about whether they’re in this for the long haul.
Your boss might not remember the work you did on an average week when everything went to plan. But they’re sure to remember the time when you stepped up, stretched the limits of your abilities, and delivered what seemed impossible at short notice while everything around you was on fire. That’s what they’ll recall when thinking about what you’re capable of.
You’re only as good as your worst day. Not because what you do the rest of the time doesn’t matter. Not because you should be expected to be perfect under immense stress or to behave according to plan when everything goes awry. But because what you do on your worst day is impossible to fake. It’s honest signaling. There’s little time for posturing or stalling. On your worst day, you reveal whether you’ve been planning for the possibility of disaster or just coasting along enjoying the good times. Your plans and preparation (or lack thereof) show how much you really care about the people who depend on you. You get to build and strengthen bonds in ways that will last a lifetime, or you risk destroying relationships in moments. You get to build trust and respect or you might break what you have irreparably.
Your worst day is a chance to show your best qualities, to stand out, and to learn an enormous amount about yourself. Very few people plan or prepare for what they’ll do and how they’ll act during those times. Those who do might well end up turning their worst day into their best.