Five months after he was named chairman and CEO of American Express, Kenneth Chenault helped his leadership team navigate the impact of 9/11. He said, “Leadership reputations are made or lost during times of crisis.”
What he quickly learned was the importance of connecting with people and keeping their anxieties and issues in mind. In other words, if we do not win the hearts and the minds of our people, we lose the right to lead them. This is why it’s important to understand that crisis leadership is not the same as crisis management.
Crisis management is about agile planning and execution. It’s about managing reputation and social media and assigning critical tasks. It requires root-cause analysis, problem-solving and solid execution. It requires direction and a sense of control. Crisis management is about pushing outward and getting the right things done.
Crisis leadership, on the other hand, requires a different mindset. It is about putting other people first, similar to the concept of servant leadership. Key qualities that servant leaders exhibit include recognizing that every person adds value and deserves trust and respect, that purpose is an inspiring motivator and that serving others is paramount. Crisis leaders bring people together, and they do this through thoughtful words and actions. It is about looking inward, reflecting on what needs to be done and inspiring others to join in.
Leaders of all kinds have had to face unexpected crises. As the founder and chief culture officer of a culture change consultancy, I’ve observed that the leaders who have handled such challenges most effectively all share some critical characteristics, traits and approaches, including:
Thinking First: Crisis leaders take the time needed to figure out what is going on. They know they need to provide direction, but they must do so deliberatively. When people are afraid or anxious, one thing they crave is consistency of words and deeds. Without sufficient forethought and understanding, it is easy to be misinformed and, therefore, to have to change messaging or shift direction too soon.
Collaborating On Multiple Options: Engage in brainstorming with your teams. They will have ideas that need to be heard and honored. They will think of things you did not. Additionally, be willing to listen to unpopular ideas or ideas you do not agree with. You want a full picture of the situation and options before you decide on an action.
Acting Decisively: Soliciting ideas is critical, but in the end, you are accountable for the actions you take. Reflection, understanding and gaining the perspectives of others are what gives us the confidence we need to act decisively. People want to see that you have given serious thought to the situation your organization is facing and that you are developing a plan. Balance data with your gut. Share your plans with your team as soon as you can. Waiting, even when delivering bad news, will likely only increase their anxiety. In my experience, expecting the worst is usually worse than knowing the worst.
Remaining Positive Without Sugar-Coating: Be honest. You won’t get the great ideas you need if you downplay the problem. As Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “Never awake me when you have good news to announce because with good news nothing presses, but when you have bad news, arouse me immediately, for then there is not an instant to be lost.” At the same time, express optimism and your belief and trust in your team’s ability to persevere. Thank them sincerely for all that they do and the ideas they share. Let them know you feel confident you will all weather the storm together. Spend as much time as possible talking about what you can do, rather than what has been lost or what you cannot control.
Being Humble And Courageous: Deep crises require risk-taking and ongoing decision-making. You will make mistakes. Own up to them quickly and humbly. Crisis leaders need to understand that one strategy will not solve every problem. As the crisis evolves, so must your strategies. Be agile, and keep in touch regularly with your people. Also, stay true to yourself. Be willing to compromise on your plans, but not on your core principles. In this way, you will inspire the loyalty and confidence of those around you.
Remember the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is going forward with the face of fear.” By keeping the aforementioned characteristics, traits and approaches in mind, I believe you can become a leader who’s able to successfully navigate any crisis that comes your way. As a result, you’ll inspire your team and build an even stronger organization.