Leading in a Crisis

Today, we are all being tested greatly, and so it is with our leaders. Individuals, organizations, and systems are all under strain, with some facing overload. Here are several keys to leading well in a crisis.

Radical Focus. When you are in a crisis, your immediate priority is survival. Crises require take fierce discipline in personal and organizational time management. Leaders should expect to use more “steel” (hard-edged leadership) than “velvet” (soft-edged) at the outset.

In a crisis, leaders must mercilessly cast aside all manner of ideas and projects—some with real merit—to ensure a tight focus on one or two key priorities needed for survival. Other priorities must wait. Even with this radical focus, leaders should look beyond the current storm, seeking creative ways to position the organization or group to flourish once the storm has passed.

Communicating Reality and Confidence. During a crisis, people need to know what is happening. Effective communications are essential, and it is imperative that the executive is factually accurate and forthright.

Leaders should block their calendar daily for time with their team and other key stakeholders. They must be visibly present inside and outside the organization—using all available technologies to enhance access.

Since people are stressed and worried as rumors fly, leaders must give people a sense of what to expect in the coming days and weeks, blending both realism about the current situation and confidence about the future if wise and bold action is taken.

It is essential to listen carefully and answer questions honestly. People need to be heard, and they deserve a realistic assessment of the situation and want solutions (or credible plans for how to get them). Credibility is a tremendous asset for the hard work ahead and must not be squandered.

Psychological Stability. In a crisis, many people are afraid, upset, or angry. The executive must establish not only financial and operational stability but also psychological stability. People need to be unfrozen, empowered to do what is required with confidence. Here is a tried and true process for establishing psychological stability:

  • Ventilation. First, identify all the problems. Go around the table, with each person briefly stating one issue—whether major or trivial and without editorial comment—or passing. Stop when everyone around the table has passed three times in a row. Be sure to document all the issues raised so people know they have been heard.
  • Priorities. Then sort the issues into topics (e.g., financial, operational, safety) and rank them as A, B, or C priorities.
  • Projects. Then form a crack team to work on the A priorities. The Bs are placed into a holding area, awaiting progress on the As. The Cs are deferred. The executive should require weekly (or daily) status reports to the senior management team on the A priorities, thereby establishing both transparency and accountability.
  • Values. The executive must then emphasize the need to operate by shared values.
  • Amnesty. Before moving forward, wise executives recognize that progress is not possible if people maintain vendettas about past grievances or play the “blame game.” To move forward, everybody must agree to provide amnesty for all prior mistakes. No grudges. The focus must be on the present and future, not the past.

Crisis Response Team. Facilitating the process above, the executive will get a sense for who would be reliable officers in the stormy seas ahead and who would be dead weight.

Selecting the crisis response team (and its associated roles and processes) is one of the most important things a leader can do. Skill set, character, emotional intelligence, resilience, courage, and buy-in with the shared values are good criteria to use in selecting the team. An effective organizational structure with clear roles and responsibilities, reporting lines, and communication channels are all required.

Operating Rhythm. A real risk in crises is that the initial momentum fizzles, causing the enterprise to spiral down again. To maintain forward momentum, leaders must establish a persistent operating rhythm with accountability follow-ups. Regular status reports and town hall meetings with employees (or constituents) are important.

The effort requires persistence. The group must hack away at the root causes of the problems, not symptoms. Together, they make slow and steady progress over time, reporting results and encouraging each other. Such feedback loops help foster alignment.

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” James Watkins, author

Sanctuary. In crises, leaders receive a barrage of body blows. To survive such an onslaught and to remain at their best, leaders need a daily practice of sanctuary to refresh mind, body, and spirit. Leaders must not lose themselves in their role, taking the inevitable attacks and setbacks personally.

“In moments of darkness you need to remember why you’re here and why you’re fighting that fight.” –Jacqueline Ros, co-founder and CEO of Revolar

Triple Crown Leadership Practices. Finally, the five “triple crown leadership” practices that are key to building excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations are all applicable to crises:

  1. Head and Heart. Choose people not only with the “head” elements of skills sets but also with the “heart” elements of character, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit.
  2. The Colors. Commit to uphold the shared purpose, values, and vision.
  3. Steel and Velvet. Flex between the hard and soft edges of leadership. Leaders should invoke steel to hold people accountable for the values and priorities but be careful not to squelch the initiative of potential leaders in the ranks.
  4. Stewards. Unleash multiple leaders to serve as stewards of the culture. Most crises require a great team of leaders, not a lone visionary.
  5. Alignment. Achieve peak performance through disciplined, collaborative alignment, with clear action plans, accountability mechanisms, and feedback loops.

Additional Tips from the Field:

  • Be wary of “the greatest leadership sin of all–hubris.” –James Kouzes and Barry Posner, A Leader’s Legacy
  • “You can’t surrender to the options before you. There’s always another way.” –Cory Booker, civic entrepreneur, U.S. senator
  • “People always ask me, ‘What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?’ Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO.” –Ben Horowitz, entrepreneur, inventor, investor
  • “The signature of the truly great versus the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before.” –Jim CollinsHow the Mighty Fall

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Avoiding Breakdowns

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
-Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms

In leadership circles, too often the focus is on success principles for effective leading. That is all well and good, but often it can be more helpful to tackle things from the other perspective: what causes leadership to break down (and what can we do to avoid breakdowns)?

First, there is a connection between personal breakdowns among leaders and the breakdowns of their organizations. Here we reflect on both.

Personal Breakdowns
“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”
-Ovid, Roman poet

Even the best leaders are at risk of breakdowns or setbacks in their life and work. Many leaders have frenetic schedules of meetings and travel, or face constant stress and pressure. As the effects accumulate over time, exhaustion sets in. Though many just “suck it up” and ignore the risks, those who want to thrive and endure recognize the potential for danger, including losing their ethical moorings, making rash decisions, and damaging important relationships.

Leaders need regular exercise and movement, nutritious food, good sleep, and ways to find sanctuary (e.g., mindfulness practices, nature walks). “Triple crown leadership” (our model for excellent, ethical, and enduring/sustainable leadership) begins with leading ourselves. Failure to do so leads to problems with all three areas: excellent (in terms of performance problems), ethical (with lapses in judgment and impulsive compromises), and enduring (with an unsustainable pace that wreaks havoc on our health, judgment, and relationships, and that can damage our organizational culture). Leaders seeking to avoid organizational breakdowns should start by leading themselves.

“The cornerstone of effective leadership is self-mastery.”
Patricia Aburdene, best-selling author and social forecaster

Organizational Breakdowns
In today’s volatile environment, organizational breakdowns are common. Sometimes it is a quiet affair with an orderly dissolution of assets. Other times, it is a seismic crash with painful ripple effects. Sometimes an organization rises to the pinnacle and then slowly fades back in the field.

Most organizations do not break down before emitting warning signs. Normally, the financial signals, such as revenue declines and shrinking margins, are lagging indicators. Leading indicators are more important because leaders can address them before the financials go south. What are some early warning signals of potential breakdowns?

Early Warning Signals of Organizational Breakdowns

  • Focusing too much on strategy shifts and tweaking processes instead of accountability for results
  • Complacency
  • Ethical compromises
  • Short-termism
  • Boards out to lunch about performance, culture, ethics, and sustainability
  • Chaos or constantly changing priorities

Some of the common causes of these breakdowns include: excessive deference to the top managers, failing to tap into the potential of people, leaders assuming they must make all the decisions and have all the answers, poor communication and secrecy, organizational silos, and lack of discipline and follow-through. All are failures of leadership.

As you encounter the early warning signs, you will need courage to take decisive and bold action to get the enterprise back on track. Often, this requires a rare blend of what we call “steel” (flexing to the hard edge of leadership, even if that is not a natural mode for you as a person) and smart use of people practices, such as unleashing the latent leadership potential of people throughout the organization, via what we call a culture of “stewards.”

We can avoid the breakdowns when we tap into the brilliant potential and goodwill of our team, aligning their work toward the organization’s purpose and vision, while guided by its shared values. Such resilience is the hallmark of triple crown organizations, and it can turn these challenges into amazing opportunities for transformation.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.