Leading During a Crisis: Overcoming Obstacles and Keeping Calm

OB-DE821_billge_D_20090224183025It seems like we are surrounded by crises. Sometimes they are private troubles and other times we worry about a problem we aren’t directly connected to. In mental health terms, a crisis refers not necessarily to a traumatic situation or event, but to a person’s reaction to an event. One person might be deeply affected by an event, while another individual suffers little or no ill effects. As we consider crises it may be useful to remember that the Chinese word for crisis summarizes its components. The word crisis in Chinese is formed with the combination of two characters — danger and opportunity. A crisis presents an obstacle, trauma, or threat, but it also presents leaders an opportunity for either growth or decline.

We often think of a crisis as a sudden unexpected disaster, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or other cataclysmic event. However, crises can range substantially in type and severity. Sometimes a crisis is a predictable part of the life cycle.  Situational crises are sudden and unexpected, such as accidents and natural disasters. Existential crises are inner conflicts related to things such as life purpose, direction, and spirituality.

All leaders know that their organization will undergo crises. They must prepare plans and processes that “inoculate” as much as possible their organization from its worst effects. This includes plans for immediate crisis action, leader succession, communications, etc. Next, good leaders must realize that all members of the organization will look to them for both direction and encouragement. Finally, leaders must realize that their organization will not be the same after the crisis. They must demonstrate caring and set a new course for the future. A critical part of this is to take the time to confront a difficult question: “What can we learn from this experience no matter how difficult that will make us a better organization in future?”

Finally, it may be helpful to consider an old phrase from World War II — “Keep calm and carry on”. This was a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 during the beginning of the Second World War. It was intended to raise the morale of the British public in the aftermath of widely predicted mass air attacks on major cities. Oddly, the poster had only limited distribution with no public display, and thus was little known. The poster was rediscovered in 2000, and since then has been widely used throughout the United Kingdom. During the preparation for the Olympic Games it was reissued — “Keep calm and carry on…it’s only the Olympics!

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.
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Hurricane Katrina: Learning from a Tragedy

It is hard to believe that ten years have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf after-hurricane-katrina-new-orleans-wallpapers-1024x768Coast. I had the great pleasure to be in Crescent City this past week as the tragedy of Katrina was remembered. As I was thinking about this commemoration it occurred to me that Katrina was clearly not only a natural disaster but also a leadership disaster at almost every level. Consequently, as we reflect on Katrina and mourn the nearly 2,000 people who lost their lives, leaders should think carefully on what can be learned from this crisis or any crisis to make ourselves and our organizations stronger and better.
A crisis is normally defined as a sudden unexpected disaster, but leaders must recognize that they can unfold slowly over time. Sadly, many of the warnings about the impact of Katrina on the city’s troubled levees were ignored as it approached New Orleans. Crises can be analyzed by careful consideration of their three phases: before the crisis, immediate actions during a crisis, and the aftermath. Leaders must keep this in mind as they not only prepare their organizations to meet the challenge of crisis, react initially, but also learn from crises in order to strengthen them and prepare for new challenges in future.
Before the crisis leaders need to consider how to build resilience. First, it is the leader’s responsibility to emphasize the importance of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. These are the “guardrails” for the organization and provide guidance to all during difficult times. This is a primary role for any leader. If the leader does not talk about them…who will? Second, leaders must emphasize empowerment when things are proceeding normally. This will encourage a climate of initiative at all levels so individuals throughout the organization can take actions quickly during a crisis. Third, crisis planning to include succession planning is essential. General Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” This is true for leaders today as much as it was for Ike as he prepared for the Normandy invasion. The planning process forces organizations to consider the difficult “what if” questions, recognize that plans that are not rehearsed are useless, and prepare to adapt those plans as the crisis dictates.
Each crisis is unique but careful consideration must be taken of a number of critical factors as the crisis unfolds. First, a leader must never underestimate the severity of a crisis. It may be better to overreact than to be caught ill prepared. Sadly, this lesson seems to stand out clearly in any examination of Katrina. Second, the first question a leader must ask is not “what to do” but rather “what is the problem”? Taking time at the onset to determine the range of issues, options, goals, etc. is key to an effective response. A crisis may be a time when a leader must “make haste slowly.” Third, Colin Powell often said, “optimism is a force multiplier.” Even though the situation may appear dire it is incumbent upon the leader to project optimism and confidence that the organization can meet the challenge. Finally, the leader must further realize the crisis may last a significant period of time. A crisis is often a marathon and not the fifty-yard dash! The leader may need to not only pace him/herself but also be aware of the stress and strain that individual members of the team are experiencing.
Finally, a crisis is a terrible teacher, but effective organizations are those that learn from the experience. In its aftermath leaders must insist that an organized effort is undertaken to examine what can be learned from the crisis. Careful consideration needs to be made of all aspects of the crisis. All stakeholders need to be involved as well as members of the organization both young and old. This is critical if meaning is to be found in negative events. It may drive the organization not only to review and adjust crisis action plans but also create a new vision for the organization. It may force the organization to consider such questions as: Who can we become? Who relies on us now?
I had the chance to read Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina by Cynthia Joyce while I was in New Orleans. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in this crisis. It uses the digital diaries of those most affected by the storm that were written between August 2005 and August 2007. Please Forward is a raw, frank accounting of this immense tragedy and the heartbreak it inflicted on the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of people for years in its aftermath. As I read it on this tenth anniversary it seemed that two things were very clear: first, New Orleans has returned. It is a vibrant, young, festive city, but it still suffers from enormous challenges from poverty and racial inequality with many neighborhoods still showing the ravages brought about by Katrina. Second, one has to admire the resilience and strength of the human spirit that in the face of this crisis people came together to meet the challenge. One only hopes that spirit will persist, leaders will learn from this catastrophe, and when I return to New Orleans in 2025 I will find “the Big Easy” has made even greater strides than can be imagined today.

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.

Your 3-step crisis management plan

crisisAs Henry Kissinger famously said, “There cannot be a crisis today; my schedule is already full!”

Unfortunately, crises have no respect for our busy calendars. That is why it is of utmost importance that every organization, big or small, have a crisis management plan.

In mental health terms, a crisis refers not necessarily to a traumatic situation or event, but to a person’s reaction. One person might be deeply affected by an incident, while another person suffers little or no ill effects. Furthermore, the Chinese word for crisis presents a good depiction of its components. The word crisis in Chinese is formed by two other characters — danger and opportunity. A crisis presents an obstacle, trauma, or threat, but it also presents a chance for either organizational growth or decline.

We often think of a crisis as a sudden unexpected disaster, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or other cataclysmic event. However, crises can range substantially in type and severity. Sometimes a crisis is a predictable part of the life cycle.  Situational crises are sudden and unexpected, such as accidents and natural disasters. Existential crises are inner conflicts related to things such as life purpose, direction, and spirituality.  But there is a common three-step approach to leading in crisis that is useful to organize a leader’s thinking and efforts.

chinese-crisis-2

STEP 1: Before the crisis — inoculate your organization!  Leaders must “generate leadership” in their organization.

  • Give people at all levels the opportunity to lead experiments or projects that will provide them confidence while assisting your organization to adapt to change.
  • The leader must demonstrate their commitment to ethics and organizational values. This is important to building trust, which will be tested during moments of stress.
  • “Run the plays but encourage initiative”.  Leaders must frequently emphasize organizational policies and priorities, but they also need to provide space for their team to show initiative and take risks.
  • Have a crisis action plan and test it.  Make sure key members of your team are aware of it as well as the organization’s succession plan.  Things may go wrong when the leader is not present.
  • Spend time “managing by walking around”.  The leader must stay “in touch” with his or her organization.  The leader must avoid getting “into a bubble” where only good news makes it way to him or her.

STEP 2: During the crisis — those nearest must act!  Leaders must quickly consider whether or not they have empowered their team.  They should consider the following:

  • A leader’s emotional intelligence that focuses on self-awareness, self-motivation, empathy, and an ability to control his or her fears and emotions publicly is critical.
  • Lead and be seen leading.  Set the tone for the organization.  Remember the team is unlikely to exceed your level of optimism.  One of the most important assets a leader has during a crisis is his or her presence.  Where should they be and who needs to see them?
  • The media can be your best friend or your worst enemy.  In our 24-hour transparent world any crisis may quickly gain the spotlight.  Who is the “face of my organization with the press”?  When I speak to the press have I carefully considered what information I want to convey?
  • Decide, delegate, and disappear.  Leaders must praise constantly, punish privately, and unleash achievement vs. demanding obedience.  You must reduce the “bystander phenomenon” whereby the probability that anyone will act is often inversely proportional to the number of people available.

STEP 3: After the crisis!  The leader must demonstrate caring, lead the organization’s efforts to learn from this experience, and set a new course.

  • Leaders must consider their own as well as their team’s psychological health.  Sadly, we have learned a great deal about PTSD in the last decade.  Consequently, leaders are accountable to engage in self-assessment, seek assistance, and scrutinize the fitness of their team.
  • Establish a process to identify lessons from the crisis and incorporate them into the organization’s plans for the future.  Insure that the entire team is involved in this process.
  • Create a new vision for the organization that provides meaning to what may be negative events while framing a future ideal.  This should consider two questions.  Who can we become? Who relies on us?

All leaders must accept that crises will occur.  Remember Murphy’s Law — Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and will likely do so at the worst moment!  Also remember Schultz’s Corollary — Murphy was an optimist!  Every organization must not only prepare for crises but also consider that a crisis may be an opportunity to become an even better, stronger, more effective team.  Successful leaders seek to inoculate their organizations in advance, empower the organization during the crisis, and learn from the crisis after the fact.   In this regard Abigail Adams, the wife of our second president may be insightful:

“These are times in which a genius would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life or in the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed…great necessities call out great virtue.”

   — Letter to her son, John Quincy Adams

Leading During a Crisis

OB-DE821_billge_D_20090224183025It seems like we are surrounded by crises – the bombing at the Boston Marathon, shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, gas explosion in Texas, and destructive tornadoes that struck Oklahoma.  In mental health terms, a crisis refers not necessarily to a traumatic situation or event, but to a person’s reaction to an event. One person might be deeply affected by an event, while another individual suffers little or no ill effects. As we consider crises it may be useful to remember that the Chinese word for crisis summarizes its components. The word crisis in Chinese is formed with the combination of two characters — danger and opportunity. A crisis presents an obstacle, trauma, or threat, but it also presents leaders an opportunity for either growth or decline.

We often think of a crisis as a sudden unexpected disaster, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or other cataclysmic event. However, crises can range substantially in type and severity. Sometimes a crisis is a predictable part of the life cycle.  Situational crises are sudden and unexpected, such as accidents and natural disasters. Existential crises are inner conflicts related to things such as life purpose, direction, and spirituality.

All leaders know that their organization will undergo crises.  They must prepare plans and processes that “inoculate” as much as possible their organization from its worst effects.  This includes plans for immediate crisis action, leader succession, communications, etc.  Next, good leaders must realize that all members of the organization will look to them for both direction and encouragement.  Finally, leaders must realize that their organization will not be the same after the crisis.  They must demonstrate caring and set a new course for the future.  A critical part of this is to take the time to confront a difficult question – “What can we learn from this experience no matter how difficult that will make us a better organization in future?”

Finally, it may be helpful to consider an old phrase from World War II — “Keep calm and carry on”.    This was a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 during the beginning of the Second World War.  It was intended to raise the morale of the British public in the aftermath of widely predicted mass air attacks on major cities. Oddly, the poster had only limited distribution with no public display, and thus was little known. The poster was rediscovered in 2000, and since then has been widely used throughout the United Kingdom.  During the preparation for the Olympic Games it was reissued – “Keep calm and carry on…it’s only the Olympics!

Image from HERE.

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.
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