How Leaders Set the Tone

The Success of the Thai Soccer Coach

For two weeks people around the globe were glued to their television and computer screens searching for updates about 12 boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach who were trapped deep inside a cave in Northern Thailand. Finally, on July 10, the story that captivated and stunned the world came to an end when the final members of the soccer team exited the cave alive and well.  

“We’ve rescued everyone,” said Narongsak Osatanakorn, the former governor of Chiang Rai province and the lead rescue official. “We achieved a mission impossible.” 

And it certainly was an impossible mission. Divers and rescuers from all over the world came to help guide the young boys through narrow passages, in pitch dark, weighed down by heavy equipment. Each grueling trip took between nine and 11 hours. Some of the boys had to learn how to swim while waiting to be rescued.

The Thai Navy SEALS summarized the rescue well in a Facebook post that read: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what.”

What is most miraculous about this incredible rescue is the physical and mental health of the young boys when they emerged. Aside from being tired, hungry, and having lost some weight from weeks without proper nourishment, the boys were considered to be in good health after a short hospital stay.

While the rescue certainly required extraordinary feats in cave-diving expertise and medical know-how, it is steady leadership that played a significant role in helping the crisis come to a happy conclusion. The officials in charge of the rescue operations, the medical doctors, and the Thai SEAL divers were critical in pulling off the actual rescue, but it is the soccer coach who played the most critical role.

Having already gained their complete trust, Ekkapol Ake Chantawong, a former monk, kept the boys calm and focused and kept up their hopes that they would be found and rescued. It was his ability to set the tone in the cave that ensured rescuers would be able to get them out alive. If he had not done so successfully, the divers may have had to rescue boys who were dangerously anxious, panicked, or deeply traumatized. Not a state of mind you want someone to be in when you’re rescuing them from a life-or-death situation.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to set the tone for your team or organization. It is your actions and reactions that your team will follow during challenging situations and crises. However, you don’t have to wait for an epic crisis to start practicing setting the tone. Consider these three concepts during day-to-day operations to set you up for success in trying times.

1. Build Trust

We instinctually know that we will not follow someone we don’t trust, as it can be dangerous— physically, to our careers, or to the future of our businesses. Building trust takes time and effort on the part of the leader, and it can ensure that your team will follow you through thick and thin. But don’t forget! That trust can be lost in an instant if promises are broken or ethics are violated.

2. Check Your Optimism

I often say, “Nobody is going to be more optimistic than you are!” Be it completing a new project, overcoming a financial challenge, or getting through a crisis, if you shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, not sure how this is gonna go folks!” you just massively decreased your chance of success. Plus, you’ve lost trust and you will have a hard time being taken seriously in the future. Be an optimist and your team will be optimistic they can complete any task that comes their way!

3. Never Let Them See You Sweat

As a leader, you have to be steady, calm, and keep your cool under fire. Losing your temper in staff meetings or having a public emotional breakdown during a crisis will put you on a path to disaster. You will appear unapproachable and unable to lead with confidence and grace. Be honest, stay composed, and have your emotional moments behind closed doors.

When faced with a challenge or extreme crisis, it is the leader’s responsibility to set the tone. Your reactions will decide what direction a simple challenge or crisis will take – the road headed towards complete disaster or the road that will most likely lead to a positive outcome. But, don’t keep these steps in your back pocket for that worst-case scenario. Start practicing today so you can have success when challenges and crises arise.

Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership & Strategy, LLC is a retired Army Colonel with over 30 years of unique and challenging leadership experiences. As a retired military officer and veteran, Jeff’s work has taken him all over the world serving in a variety of command and staff positions in places such as the on National Security Council Staff, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the Pentagon.

Never Waste a Good Crisis!

What leaders can learn from the Volkswagen scandal

In September 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency made a discovery about VW cars being sold in the U.S. that was quickly dubbed the “diesel dupe”. It was a crisis that opened investigations worldwide into the legitimacy of its emissions testing. Furthermore, they recalled over 10 million cars, shares fell by about a third, many company leaders stepped down and they lost loyal customers.

The definition of a crisis is an “unstable situation of extreme danger”, “a crucial stage”, “a turning point”. Using a crisis as an opportunity is a very effective yet often underutilized tactic in crisis management.

This is the tactic that Volkswagen is utilizing to restore their business and earn back the trust of world leaders and customers. Much like a phoenix rising from the ashes, VW has turned this cheating scandal into a business opportunity to look toward the future and leave behind diesel for electric cars.

Matthias Erb, VW’s chief engineering officer in North America, told NPR that, while the scandal was terrible, it “supported and accelerated those conversion processes in the direction of electrification”.

Making a sharp pivot, like Volkswagen is doing, can be particularly helpful when dealing with a crisis of this magnitude; one where the company’s image is on the line, where deep trust has been broken, and continuing “business as usual” will be detrimental rather than helpful. This kind of re-branding may be what is necessary to keep a business afloat.

However, before changing the direction of your organization to deal with a crisis, consider these three important steps:

1. Conduct a post mortem

All crises, big and small, must be closely analyzed with a post mortem. Only then can you learn where the problem truly began, how the crisis manifested itself and how to move forward. A post mortem can help uncover decisions you may have to make, bringing us to step 2.

2. Decide and act

Leaders must have tremendous courage, particularly in a crisis. You will have to make some very difficult decisions such as having to let someone go or possibly step aside yourself. Martin Winterkorn, former executive for the Volkswagen Group, resigned as a direct result of the scandal. It is important to consider your “true north” when dealing with a crisis – what is the moral and right thing to do in this situation? Before making any decisions however, be sure to consider step 3.

3. Consider the consequences

You may have come up with the perfect pivot for your organization to come out of this crisis. But, have you considered the consequences of this plan? VW, for example, will not only be investing in the research and development of new technology for their electric cars. They will also have to spend millions of dollars to build out an underdeveloped charging infrastructure in the U.S. Think about the long-term effects this new direction may have before moving forward.

As a leader you WILL be involved in crises – large and small. Just remember, never waste a perfectly good crisis! Knowing how to turn a crisis into a business opportunity may be the only way to save your organization.

Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership & Strategy, LLC is a retired Army Colonel with over 30 years of unique and challenging leadership experiences. As a retired military officer and veteran, Jeff’s work has taken him all over the world serving in a variety of command and staff positions in places such as the on National Security Council Staff, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the Pentagon.

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.


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