In any crisis, people in the middle of the crisis almost desperately seek out those who keep their heads about them to be near in the hopes of getting through the crisis. That is a truth of human nature. It is also a truth that the people of any organization know without having to ponder who the leaders are that they can count. Ideally, that person is the titular leader of the organization. Ideally, because you want the person at the top of an organization to be the leader in practice and not just in title. That is both moral and legal authority. If that is the case, then the organization is likely in good shape and the people are ultimately comfortable in their acceptance of the inevitable crisis. They know crises will come and they are certain their leaders will get them through it because they’ve seen their leaders weather storms already.
That is a level of trust and competence which every leader ought to aspire to. But not all organizational bosses are capable. Many are caught with their pants down in a crisis. The Peter principle says that people rise through an organization to the level of their incompetence. In my experience of government service and business leadership consulting, I have seen repeatedly that leaders are both unprepared for the inevitable crisis and incapable to lead during it. And yet the organizations very often come through the crisis. Why? Because someone in the organization steps up to lead through moral authority and their fellow co-workers rally around the “emerging leader” knowing that person can get them through the crisis.
So how can you be the leader of your organization and the one who is competent to get your organization through the inevitable crisis? Lets first talk a little about your job as a leader and then how to prepare for a crisis and finally how to lead in a crisis.
Lets begin with your place in the organization. You’ve been so great as a doer in your line of work that you’ve been promoted to boss. Your initial inclination will be to remain in your comfort zone and continue doing. After all, you’re the best doer and you’ve been promoted because of it. But you must stand fast against that urge to continue doing. You must transition your mind from doing to leading.
That means setting the organizational vision and mission, empowering your people to achieve that, maintaining your organizational focus on that mission and vision, and developing the next generation of leaders to take over your own job. Those tasks ought to be informed by your moral compass and that morality ought to be consistent and open for everyone to know. Notice that nowhere in that leader duty description is being a doer. You need to lead and let your doers do, even when doing is more fun than leading and enabling others. You need to give them direction, clearly empower them to succeed and hold them accountable for the outcomes. You may miss the doing, but your job demands you be disciplined to do the organizational work of the leader and the humility to be satisfied with your subordinates’ success, even if you’re in a small or flat organization where you have to occasionally pitch in.
That’s all well and good in daily operations in your organization. You used to spend your whole day doing, and now there is only so much email, staff meetings and mentoring you can do to fill your work week. Block off time in your calendar and spend that time preparing for the inevitable crisis that will define you as the leader. I’ll offer that there are two keys to crisis leadership. The first is to analyze your environment to foresee the most likely crises that will inevitably arise, and the deep thinking of what specific actions you need to take to get out of the crisis.
If you don’t already have an element of your organization dedicated to analyzing your environment, I strongly urge you to create one. When I make this recommendation to my clients, I often am told they can’t justify spending money on people and work that doesn’t directly affect the profits of the company. So then I ask them to compare that amount of outlay to preparing for crises against the money they spend during a crisis to figure it out and determine how to get out of it. This analysis how doesn’t need to be huge, but it does need to be somebody’s dedicated work. The larger the organization and the more complex the relationships of your suppliers and clients, the larger and more funded your analysis capability must be.
You ought, as a leader, to understand the difference between the likelihood of an event and the harm the event could cause when it occurs. If an event is recurring and not dangerous to your business, you know how to handle it because you see it often and fall back on your processes. But for the rare, likely, and dangerous situation, being unprepared can cause crisis of existential proportion.
Lets look at the example of the Coronavirus pandemic. Crises at the level of an existential threat, while not scheduled on a calendar, are expected to occur occasionally. Your job as a leader is to explore your environment and consider what are the likely dangerous situations that will inevitably arise. Then you need to think through how you will deal with that situation. It is critical that you consider the world as it is and not as you want it to be. In the case of the pandemic, the SARS CoV-2 virus didn’t care about politics. It didn’t care about peoples’ desires or economic policies. It didn’t follow a linear infection rate, but exponential one.
Leaders that survive or even thrive in a crisis are the ones who differentiate between their desires for how a situation plays out and the most likely way that the situation will actually play out. People know the value of their compatriots when the chips are down – this is true of both personal and professional relationships. There was plenty of historical evidence for how pandemics spread. Covid was no different, yet leaders at all levels failed because of conflating desires with reality and expertise. Leaders who foresaw the intersection of likely government restrictions, with peoples’ desires to continue some form of “normalcy,” and who understood their supply chains, were able to shift their operations and thrive during the pandemic. Witness restaurants that put up outdoor seating and heaters and continued to serve their clientele.
Finally, thinking through all potential crises will help you when the crisis actually arrives. Remember my earlier observation that people naturally flock to a calm leader in crisis. Having thought through what a crisis will look like and what specific actions you need to take at what points, you will be far more calm and so will your people as they navigate the crisis. Furthermore, those preparations will, having been made during times of normal operations, will be informed by your moral compass. Thus you can be confident that your crisis management tasks will be good for the whole organization.
So when times are good, think through what the situation will look like when a crisis arises. Carefully develop the entire situation and how all your inputs and outputs will be affected, who your people are and how they will most likely act, and what they need you to do and when. Remember when planning for the crisis that you will need to act, act firmly, and act morally. Then when the crisis hits, deliberately remind yourself that you have a plan and be disciplined to follow it. Your people will thrive in that circumstance.