“ “Every plan is a good one until the first shot is fired”” — Mark Brouker
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Brouker.
Captain Brouker is a thought leader, sought after keynote speaker, professor, historian, executive coach, author and proven leader. Captain Brouker served as Commanding Officer at one of the largest naval hospitals worldwide, as well as Chief of Staff for Navy Treatment West, responsible for 10 hospitals spanning the West Coast to the Indian Ocean and healthcare for 800,000 patients. After transitioning from the military, Dr. Brouker founded Brouker Leadership Solutions and has presented to thousands of professionals from diverse organizations in 21 countries on 5 continents around the world, including an array of Fortune 500 companies, professional and military organizations and top universities. His book — Lessons from the Navy: How to earn trust, lead teams and create organizational excellence, will be published in October, 2020. His next book, The Nimitz Way: Leadership lessons from America’s greatest naval commander, will be published in 2021.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in the beautiful rolling hills of the Berkshires in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. My Dad — like almost everyone in town — was a blue-collar factory worker at the local General Electric plant. At that time, almost all of my relatives — past and present — worked at the same factory. My Dad wanted me to break that tradition — he wanted me to go to college. However, he was adamant that I go to college for one reason — and one reason only — to get a ‘good’ job. What ‘good’ meant was certainly up for debate. I understood it to mean that it was well paying and one where you wouldn’t get furloughed, laid off, or whatever term you’d like to use — which was all too common for blue collar factory workers in Pittsfield in the 1970’s. In retrospect, that was very wise counsel.
That dictates put some pressure on me to come up with a viable plan, especially as high school graduation approached. I recall the day that my Dad asked me what I was going to study in college. Of course, I had no plan — I was having too much fun doing what 17-year old teenagers do. Fortunately, I had to run off to work that evening at my part-time job as a clerk at the local drug store. That evening, for the first time, I noticed that the pharmacist — Jerry Sokop — didn’t seem to be very stressed as he calmed worked his vocation, drove a pretty nice new car, and was never out of work. As we were closing the store that evening, I asked Mr. Sokop how one would become a pharmacist. He told me that you study for five years in college, pass a test, and you’re a pharmacist.
That was it. I proudly told my dad that evening that I was going to be a pharmacist.
By God’s grace, I crossed the finish line and became a registered pharmacist in August of 1980. My first job was in People’s Drug Store #19 in Washington DC. Within 4 months I realized that retail pharmacy was not for me and I started looking into other vocations.
After a nearly three-year search, I decided to join the Navy as a pharmacist in 1983. My exposure to the Navy up to that point in my life was through intriguing stories told by my dad. Although he had only been in the Navy for a couple of years, it clearly had a major impact on his life. My dad loved his time in the Navy. Also, my cousin, Chief Steve Brouker, was in the Navy in 1983 and his colorful stories about being in the Navy certainly increased my interest. After being held up at pistol point in my drug store for a second time, I decided that being a pharmacist in the Navy couldn’t be any more dangerous than being a retail pharmacist. I joined and never looked back. My wife, Kris, and I were married in 1983 and we embarked together on our Navy adventure. We have three children; Shayna, Jake, and Katherine. Shayna is married to Joe and they have a handsome 18-month old son, Jonah.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
After transitioning from the Navy, I started a leadership consulting company named Brouker Leadership Solutions (www.BroukerLeadershipSolutions.com). I’m forever grateful to the Navy for the opportunities to lead and the wisdom gained. I’ve now dedicated my life to helping others on their leadership journey.
In my travels since starting my company, I’ve seen professionals from a variety of areas — sports, healthcare, sales, banking, insurance, manufacturing, engineering, academia and, of course, military, to name a few — who, due to their proficiency as an individual contributor, get promoted into leadership positions. However, they struggle mightily as leaders. Why? They struggle because they don’t fully understand what it takes to succeed in their role as a leader. In my research and experience, as well as is documented in numerous studies, the key ingredient to effective leadership is caring, and these struggling leaders don’t make this a priority. This is not to say that these leaders as individuals are uncaring. However, their focus, attention and energy are weighed too heavily in other areas of the business and not in developing relationships with their employees. In other words, they may spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on results rather than their vitally important role in achieving those results.
The goal for every organization is mission accomplishment. Teams that trust their leader will accomplish the mission much easier — with less drama, staff turnover, lower cost in labor and material, among other metrics — compared to teams led by command and control focused leaders. When one leads with care and compassion, trust is earned and high performing teams are created.
What I’ve learned is that great leaders care for the well-being of their team members. Great leaders ensure that every single employee is able to feel engaged, fulfilled, supported, and recognized at work; Great leaders get people excited about the work, excited to come to work and excited to accomplish the work. Great leaders prove Theodore Roosevelt’s words of wisdom — People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care — is true.
While the bulk of my practical experience is based on military leadership structure, I’ve learned that this principle of compassion and caring is a critical approach to leadership no matter the industry or organization. Since my transition from the military, my passion has led me to work with diverse organizations in 21 countries — funding banks, insurance companies, academic institutions, civilian medical teams, professional sports organizations, and both Fortune 500 companies and small businesses from a variety of industries. The research I’ve gathered, concepts presented and techniques suggested can be universally applied in any setting.
My passion is to enlighten leaders to not only understand the enormous power of leadership but, more specifically, the power of caring. I want to inspire them to make the small funding needed — through the use of practical and easily applicable leadership behaviors — to transform them into the great leader that is within them.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I began my military career leading a number of hospital pharmacy departments in the United States, overseas and on board ships. I served as Commanding Officer at one of the largest naval hospitals worldwide, as well as Chief of Staff for Navy Treatment West, responsible for 10 hospitals spanning the West Coast to the Indian Ocean and healthcare for 800,000 patients. In this position, I provided executive coaching and day to day mentoring for 10 Commanding Officers.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
Wow, that’s a tough question — I’ve had so many fascinating experiences in my Navy career. However, there’s one interesting story that occurred during the Persian Gulf War which gave me a much greater appreciation for the power of leadership. Specifically, how a few words from a leader can have an enormous impact.
In the fall of 1990, I was on the deck of a hospital ship in the Persian Gulf. I, along with over a thousand other shipmates, was assigned to the new, state-of-the-art hospital ship, USNS Comfort. [It’s very uplifting to know that this great ship is still helping provide medical care during this Covid-19 crisis] We were a small cog within a massive allied coalition that would eventually number nearly one million service members, including seven hundred thousand from the United States. We were in the Middle East as a result of Saddam Hussein’s sudden invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The operation was coined OPERATION DESERT SHIELD, which turned into OPERATION DESERT STORM, and would eventually come to be known as simply The Persian Gulf War. It was on that ship during that deployment when a senior officer had a five-minute conversation with me that completely transformed my attitude. His words were a caring act — they uplifted me — and my trust in him as a leader grew exponentially.
To give some perspective, at the time of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi army was estimated to number one million men, which was the fourth-largest army in the world. The big concern was Iraq’s extensive chemical warfare program. During the Iran-Iraq war, fought from 1980 to 1988, a war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated five hundred thousand Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops on numerous occasions. In March 1988, the infamous Halabja massacre occurred; the Iraqi army used sarin gas and mustard gas on their own citizens. Iraq’s biological warfare development pursued a similar course, but by the time Iraqis were testing biological warheads (containing anthrax and botulinum toxin) in Iraq’s deserts, the Iran-Iraq war had come to an end. The bottom line is that there was great concern that if Saddam was willing to use chemical weapons on his own people, he would certainly be willing to use them against coalition forces.
The Comfort arrived in the Persian Gulf in late August 1990. Onboard the ship, myself, and my shipmates, as well as scores of Americans back home, were supportive of halting Saddam’s brutal invasion of it’s his non-threatening and peaceful neighbor, Kuwait. In fact, polls showed that in August 1990, 78% of Americans supported the deployment of US troops in support of OPERATION DESERT SHIELD. I, along with my shipmates, ramped up our confidence and excitement as we began preparing for mass casualties.
As August turned to September…then October …and November . . . …morale, being a fickle mistress, sagged throughout the ship. All teams wrestle with morale that waxes and wanes. Ours was a green crew, and our morale was probably more susceptible to the vagaries of shipboard life. Like sand slipping through one’s hand, our initial enthusiasm slowly ebbed away.
One reason for our fading fervor for the deployment was our growing boredom with the multitude of seemingly endless drills that we grudgingly participated in. There were fire drills, man overboard drills, and everyone’s favorite, general quarters drills, among others. Donning our MOPP gear was something that we particularly despised. MOPP is an acronym for “ Mission Oriented Protective Posture” and is the protective gear used during a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear strike. Given that we sailed within proximity of Saddam’s chemical warfare threat, and certainly would be within range of his SCUD missiles if hostilities broke out, learning how to don and work in our MOPP gear was a necessary evil. This clumsy and heavy gear is normally to be worn over one’s uniform. We needed to learn how to put it on quickly — in a matter of minutes — as the warning time for a chemical attack would be minimal. When in the gear it’s hard to hear and movement is excruciatingly slow; you become quickly fatigued with even minor physical tasks. While you’re always hot in the Persian Gulf, you’re much hotter when in MOPP gear. If you wear battle glasses, they’ll quickly fog up inside your gas mask. You can’t wipe the fog off your glasses because, well, you’re wearing a gas mask. The number one rule during our drills was to wear that damn gas mask — or potentially suffer a horrible death from poisonous gas inhalation. Given Saddam’s past propensity for using chemical weapons, donning our MOPP gear was a constant reminder of the true nature of that threat.
While the seemingly limitless drills, with or without MOPP gear, certainly played a hand in sapping our enthusiasm, the primary reason for our fading morale was the paucity of information available to us. Despite the U.S. postal services’ wise decision to waive the need for postage stamps for any letter sent to or from the Persian Gulf area of operations, mail from home took weeks, sometimes months, to arrive. Regarding news of recent events and happenings, we were in an information vortex. When newspapers came, they were pitifully outdated.
Rumors, gossip, and grumbling filled the information void. Initially, I took this all with a grain of salt. However, as the days, weeks, and months plodded by, my enthusiasm waned. Like everyone else on that ship, I dearly missed my loved ones back home — my wife, Kris, and our two-year-old daughter, Shayna. From this toxic milieu grew cynicism, doubt, and a mounting distrust about the wisdom of the whole affair, and I missed Kris and Shayna even more.
Under this fog of boredom, confusion, and rising distrust, I found myself alone early one evening on the rail of the ship, absently witnessing yet another spectacular sunset over the Persian Gulf. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Commander Wink Fisher, one of the surgeons assigned to the ship. He approached me, and, after some pleasantries, I quietly shared my newfound misgivings about the deployment. He listened patiently and then said, “Mark, I don’t pay much attention to all the gossip and rumor. I try to focus on my job. The way I see it, my job — our job — is to make sure some kid who gets shot up gets home to his family alive.” He paused for a few seconds and looked at me. “That’s it.”
We remained silent for a few minutes alone in our thoughts and eventually, we said our goodbye’s. Watching the horizon in silence as the countless constellations of stars slowly emerged, I thought about the wisdom of his words. The more I mulled them over, the more clarity I found. Like fog lifting from a morning sun, my cynicism, doubt, and a distrust slowly dissipated. Throughout the rest of that deployment, through the air campaign and the ground offensive, as OPERATION DESERT SHIELD transitioned into OPERATION DESERT STORM, my morale never again wavered. I continued to loath donning that clumsy MOPP gear, grudgingly participated in the endless drills, and remained in an information vortex — letters continued to take weeks and months to be delivered. The business of rumors, gossip, and grumbling continued to flourish. However, I understood the importance of me being on that ship. My job — our job — was to prevent a mother or father from getting a call that no mother of or father should get. It was that simple.
Despite predictions for a grueling and bloody sixty-day ground war with twenty thousand battle deaths, miraculously the ground war was over in four days and the US suffered only 148 battle deaths. The Comfort did not see any patients during the ground war. The fact that we didn’t have to fully test our skills after all that drilling is an absolute blessing.
What I learned from this experience is that it only takes a few words from a leader to truly uplift others. Such acts of caring build trust and create a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie. In addition, opportunities for leaders to show acts of caring are abundant. These interactions can be quick and impromptu, as in this example, but also can be powerful and transformative. While Commander Fisher’s words were very few, they were extremely powerful. Our conversation, our interaction, lasted fewer than five minutes. Nevertheless, in that short span, he took the time to help me find clarity. It was a caring act; his words uplifted me. My trust in the wisdom of our mission and trust in him as a leader grew and gave me much needed perspective.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
From 2003 to 2006, I worked at the Bureau of Naval Personnel and led a small team of highly talented individuals whose job it was to assign officers to Navy commands around the globe. The Navy’s title for this human resource job is “‘detailer.”’ The typical officer in the Navy moves to a new tour of duty about every three years. My team was responsible for ensuring three thousand naval officers had jobs that were career-enhancing, challenging, and overall suitable for themselves and their families. As an example, we were sometimes tasked to convince a naval officer, and sometimes their family, that a move from Hawaii to Iceland was in their best interest. Needless to say, it was a fascinating job.
Over the three years that I held that position, I had literally thousands of conversations with officers as we balanced the needs and desires of the individual officers and their families with the needs of the Navy. The needs of the Navy were inordinately high — this was the height of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were stretched thin in many areas, and we needed all hands on deck. My team worked hard to keep as many of our top-performing officers in the Navy as possible.
Through that process, I would sometimes have multiple conversations with the same officer over a period of weeks. In a perfect world, these conversations ultimately resulted in me “‘writing orders”’ for the officer to detach from their current command and report to another command. However, the world is not perfect. Sometimes, this was not the outcome of our conversations. It must be remembered that the United States Armed Forces is an all-volunteer force. A viable option for any officer who has completed their obligated service is to tell me, or any detailer, that they’re not interested in another tour; they’re getting out of the Navy. This, of course, happened.
Through the thousands of conversations I had with officers over those three years, I never heard an officer use an imminent deployment as a reason for getting out. These officers never hesitated to accept orders that would take them into harm’s way. It was inspiring to hear them bravely accept orders that would attach them, for example, to a Marine Corps unit that was either already in a dangerous area or deploying to one.
During my next three tours of duty — from 2006 to 2013 — I watched as hundreds of Sailors similarly deployed into very dangerous areas. Many times, I was the one giving them the news. Again, never did I witness any hesitation or unwillingness to go. Again, the United States armed forces is an all-volunteer force — these men and women all volunteered to join the Navy. In my mind, these were all acts of heroism.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I’d describe a hero as someone who either helps a worthy cause and/or other people in spite of putting themselves in danger. I think of all the men and women — past, present and future — who volunteer to serve our country in the military. Each servicemember understands that they are volunteering to put themselves in harm’s way for a cause bigger than themselves. I also think of the first responders in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as well as the healthcare workers providing care during the coronavirus pandemic.
In each case, in spite of the obvious danger to themselves, they ran toward the danger to help others. In my opinion, all three of these are examples of unselfish acts to help either a worthy cause or help others and are all acts of heroism.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, the primary lesson the Navy taught me was that effective leadership is not about command and control but about compassion and caring. The key to mission accomplishment is a high performing team. When the team has trust in their leader, they perform at a very high level. How a leader builds trust is through acts of caring.
Let me tell you a story of how simple acts of caring can build a high performing team.
When I was assigned as Executive Officer (Chief Operating Officer) at US Naval Hospital in Rota, Spain, I began the habit — that I’ve continued to this day — of getting to know my new employees during our initial meeting. I’d have them tell me their story. Prior to my tour in Rota a mentor told me to do this as a way of creating a foundation of trust.
Toward the end of my tour in Rota, a young Sailor requested to see me. No one knew why she wanted to talk with me but all sailors can request to see their senior leaders at any time. She was one of our star performers at the command. Not only did she do her job extremely well but she also volunteered in other areas, such as helping to raise funds for local charities.
At our meeting, she told me that she was aware that I was moving shortly to my new assignment as Commanding Officer at Naval Hospital Bremerton, and knew that the job would be a very busy one.
She went on to say, “You probably don’t recall when we met after I arrived at this command. It was right here in this office. You asked me to tell you my story.”
She continued, “While telling you my story, I mentioned that my big concern was getting daycare for my child. I‘m a single mom and at that time I needed to find daycare for my daughter. After the meeting, you introduced me to the command master chief, who was extremely helpful. She put me in touch with the right people, and my daycare issue was fixed.”
She continued, “I also want to tell you what happened a couple of days after our initial meeting. You were walking around in my workspace, visiting and talking with my colleagues. When you saw me, you quietly asked me about my daughter, and if I had found daycare.”
She paused. Appearing to fight back tears, she said, “Sir, I’ll never forget that — it showed that the command really cared.”
After a couple of seconds, she regained her composure and continued. “Sir, I know you’re leaving soon. I wanted to tell you that this incident had a big impact on me. I knew this command would take care of my daughter and me. You cannot imagine the sense of relief I felt.”
She continued, “I’m telling you this to encourage you to do the same thing in Bremerton. Get to know your people and walk around. I know you’ll be busy in that job. But sir, you must find the time.”
Although that conversation took place many years ago, I’ll never forget its impact on me. Here are the facts of the story: I spent about thirty minutes getting to know this sailor, and a couple of days later I spent a moment or two asking her about daycare for her daughter. Our command master chief put her in contact with the right people, and her daycare needs were met. What was the result? A sailor who felt cared for, a sailor who trusted us, and a sailor who worked very hard for us.
What I’ve learned since transitioning from the Navy is that leading with care and compassion is not only the key to achieving excellence in the military, but it’s the key to achieving excellence in all organizations. For example, a fascinating study by Gallup® showed that in the corporate world happy employees indeed produce healthy bottom lines.
In 1997, a successful retailer asked Gallup® to measure the company’s level of employee engagement and culture in their three hundred stores across the United States. Each store had a similar layout, product positioning, store design, and so on.
Gallup asked all thirty-seven thousand employees to complete a well-validated survey of twelve questions (each on a scale of one to five) that measured employee engagement. In essence, these employees were asked if their boss cared for them. In fact, one of the questions on the survey asked, “Does my supervisor care for me?”. A total of twenty-eight thousand employees responded to the survey. The scores of employees working at the same stores were aggregated. In this way, employee engagement scores were ascertained for each of the three hundred stores.
Scores were compiled so that the seventy-five stores with the highest employee engagement scores were identified as a cohort, and the seventy-five stores with the lowest employee engagement scores were identified as a cohort. Profits were then aggregated for the two cohorts.
The seventy-five high-engagement stores (i.e., stores led by caring leaders), ended the year almost 14 percent over their annualized profit goal. What was the factor that caused employee engagement and profits to climb in these stores? The managers of these stores were themselves engaging and cared for their employees.
What about the seventy-five low-engagement stores; the stores led by disengaged leaders? They missed their profit goals by a full thirty percent.
During my Navy career, I learned the power of leading with care and compassion. It turns out that this style of leading is also the key ingredient to achieving excellence in other organizations as well.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My wife Kris and I were married in 1983 — the same year I commissioned in the Navy — and she has supported me during and after my Navy career. At the very start of our marriage, she was willing to give up her criminal justice career. Because of her sacrifices and support, we were able to fully enjoy the incredible Navy journey together. We moved thirteen times, lived in seven different states and three foreign countries, and visited many other states and countries. Without her support, I would not have completed a thirty-year Navy career, would not have had the opportunity to lead at the levels I did, and would not have the experience — and stories — that made my professional speaker and author career possible. There’s a funny story about how Kris helped me resolve a very bizarre incident that happened during my Navy career. It’s in my TED talk. Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqpJC6pcaaI.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
It’s a time of great uncertainty.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
This is an outstanding question. Leadership is never more important than in times of crisis, whether minor on not-so-minor. Every organization at some time will face a crisis. They come in all sizes and often are completely unexpected. The only known is that they will come. What should a leader do to prepare for this inevitability?
Of course, it’s essential that leaders proactively create contingency plans for the next crisis by identifying vulnerable areas, analyzing the organization’s state of readiness, providing appropriate staff training, staging crisis readiness simulations, and updating/creating a crisis response plan. However, there is a famous military maxim that says “Every plan is a good one — until the first shot is fired”. The fact is organizations will either weather the storm well or not based on other things that leaders do or don’t do before the first shot is fired. What are these “other things”? They’re acts of caring that create a culture of trust.
Whether in crisis mode or otherwise, team culture is a byproduct of the team leader. More specifically, the leader’s behaviors create either an environment of calm or an environment of unease. Further, trust is earned exponentially faster in the former as compared to the latter. In other words, leaders who generally lead with care and compassion will create calm and more easily earn trust. Leaders who generally lead with command and control, on the other hand, tend to create cultures of unease, and trust is more difficult to attain. This is not to say that these leaders as individuals are uncaring. However, their focus, attention, and energy are weighed too heavily in other areas of the business and not in developing relationships with their employees. In other words, they may spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on results rather than their vitally important role in achieving those results.
Unquestionably, in times of crisis — when there is great uncertainty —, those organizations that have trust up and down the chain of command will weather the storm much better than those that do not. The key is to build trust before the first shots are fired.
Earlier this year I had two very different experiences that helped me better understand the profound importance of this concept. One experience had to do with the coronavirus crisis. In early March 2020, I visited the frontline healthcare providers at EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. At that time, they were the epicenter of the crisis in the United States. I watched in admiration as the healthcare team carefully provided high level inpatient medical care to very ill patients infected with the virus. The other experience was some stunning information I learned while reading a book during the time of my EvergreenHealth visit on Continental Army leadership during the American Revolutionary War. You must be thinking — how could these two things possibly be related?
Let me start with my visit to EvergreenHealth. Well before ‘coronavirus’ became a household term, the senior leaders at EvergreenHealth quietly and steadfastly worked to prepare for this type of emergency. Of course, like all reputable hospitals, they created contingency plans and provided appropriate training for their staff on emergency preparedness.
However, the leaders at this hospital — perhaps more than at most hospitals — did much more to prepare. What did they do? They did the all-important “other things”.
Due to a change in leadership, in the months leading up to the pandemic, the leadership team began the habit of walking around the hospital and engaging more with the employees. They made more of an effort to get to know a little about each of them. They proactively made themselves visible and listened to their employee’s concerns. They were more engaged leaders…and more approachable leaders.
Over time, because of these hundreds of seemingly innocuous exchanges, a culture of mutual respect and collaboration was created. In short, trust grew up and down the chain of command.
Then, unexpectedly, coronavirus appeared on the world stage. Suddenly infected patients arrived at their hospital. Literally overnight, the staff at EvergreenHealth were treating a host of very ill patients — the first hospital in the United States to treat numerous coronavirus infected patients. How did the hospital team perform? Exceedingly well. The initial contact with the virus was intense and difficult, but the team was never overwhelmed. They made — and continue to make — excellent patient care decisions at every level and work bravely and unselfishly to provide the best care possible.
The bottom line is that over time — several months before a crisis hit — the leaders created high morale and trust. When the crisis hit, the team performed at an extraordinary level. This was the deciding factor that allowed the EvergreenHealth team to meet the challenge. In fact, a visiting healthcare professional leading a team from an internationally recognized healthcare organization sent the following email to the team leaders:
“I was amazed at how much the team was able to accomplish in such a quick period of time. I learned a lot from my time with your team and I think you’ll probably quickly find that your group will set the national example for how to get this [proper diagnosis and treatment of coronavirus patients] done as effectively as possible.”
As an example, among many firsts, the EvergreenHealth team established the first successful drive-thru coronavirus testing site in the country.
What could the EvergreenHealth story possibly have to do with Continental Army leadership during the American Revolutionary War? Actually, a lot.
A book that I happened to be reading at the time of my visit to EvergreenHealth was “Contest for Liberty: Military Leadership in the Continental Army”. One striking fact that I learned while reading this book is that over the span of the 8-year Revolutionary War — 1775 to 1783 — members of the continental army were rarely paid, fed or clothed on a regular basis. Because of this — and not surprisingly — some units simply refused to fight. They committed mutiny. Why did some units fight while others chose not to? It depended on unit leadership. Those units that felt that their leaders cared for their well-being did fight; those that did not choose not to fight.
Interestingly, before the Revolutionary War battles raged, the Continental Army leaders practiced the exact same leadership techniques as the EvergreenHealth leaders. Continental Army leaders were visible leaders — they walked around the campsites and talked with their soldiers. They made an effort to get to know a little about each of them and listened to their concerns. They were engaged leaders…and approachable leaders.
These leadership practices — knowing your staff, being visible, and listening to people’s concerns — show care and compassion, and build trust. They’re timeless and can be universally applied to any group.
The fact is all organizations will face crisis’. Whether a novel infectious disease that suddenly appears on the world stage — or the chaos of military battle — the next crisis for any organization could be around the corner. The great leaders prepare for this inevitability by proactively earning the trust of their subordinates. Whether a soldier in the 18th century or a healthcare provider in the 21st century, when people know their leader cares for them, they’ll deliver.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
The first thing a leader needs to do is get as many pertinent facts about the situation as possible. Truth is difficult to find at any time, but much more difficult in the fog of a crisis.
You next need to get in front of your people either live (best), synchronous (good) or asynchronous (OK) webinar. Either way simply being visible can reduce uncertainty and anxiety — it builds trust. Tell them what you know and turn it over for questions. It is imperative that you genuinely listen to their concerns. You don’t need to have all the answers. That fact is you never will. That’s OK — the team will benefit enormously by your mere presence.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
That’s an interesting way to frame the question. The keywords in the question are ‘needed to survive’. What I learned as a leader is that great leaders not only ‘survive’ the crisis, but thrive in a crisis. When the dust settles and the crisis has passed, their team members love them even more. How does this happen? In a crisis, great leaders consistently display four behaviors: they’re calm, honest, humble and optimistic.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
When I think of a leader who effectively led in times of crisis over a sustained period of time — while always being calm, honest, humble, and upbeat — is Admiral Chester Nimitz.
In the Pacific area in World War II, Admiral Chester Nimitz led the most powerful naval force ever brought together in the history of warfare — he commanded 2 million men over 60 million square miles, an area that covers nearly half the world’s surface. In scale, the strategy for which Nimitz was responsible dwarfed all maritime campaigning before or since. To further appreciate the scale of his accomplishments we must remember that no one ever took over a great command in stranger circumstances that Nimitz. He took command three weeks after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, where the United States battleship fleet was decimated by Japanese forces. Not only were planes and ships shattered by the surprise attack, but the morale of the Sailors of the Pacific fleet were also shattered.
Over the ensuing four years Nimitz led the effort to grow the United States Pacific fleet from the half-shattered opening phase to becoming the strongest maritime force the world had ever seen — a force that overwhelmingly defeated Japanese forces.
Commander Hal Lamar, Admiral Nimitz’s aide throughout the war and consequently someone who spent more time with Admiral Nimitz during those demanding four years than any other person, was intrigued by his boss. He himself was curious to understand what made him “a great man”. He believes it was because “above all, he was a man who liked people, who understood them and knew how to deal with them.” Because of this genuine affection for others “people rose to justify his obvious confidence in them, and he did not overreact when they disappointed them. He had an easy touch, the light hand. He was good-humored and found value in everyone and everything. He was a man with a heart.”
William Ewing, a war correspondent with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin who took part in a number of invasions on WWII, stated “I know of no other officer who could have succeeded so completely in winning the loyalty and the dedicated effort of men of all branches of the armed forces. It is probably true that in no other theater of war in WWII was their such effective unification of forces. He is the greatest man I have ever known.”
Who was this man and why is he not well known outside of Navy circles? Admiral Chester Nimitz was a soft-spoken, quiet man with no personal combat experience. While there were other colorful personalities in the Pacific theater — namely General MacArthur and Admiral Halsey — whose news-making statements attracted attention almost to the exclusion of other officers, Nimitz did not seek the limelight. Because of his self-effacing nature, he is probably the least known and least credited of all the great figures who successfully led the war against the axis powers. He neither sought publicity from the press nor popularity from naval personnel. Nimitz was a humble man who freely gave credit to others.
Perhaps this is why Admiral Nimitz is not as well remembered today as other World War II military leaders. I recall with horror an incident I witnessed while giving a leadership seminar to a group of about 200 young Naval Officers. During the seminar, I flashed a picture of Admiral Nimitz on the screen and asked if anyone could identify him. To my great displeasure a young officer stood up and stated with little confidence, “Isn’t that General MacArthur?” My heart sank. However, in a perverse way, it provided me added motivation to embark on the project to write a book about this great leader.
Regarding his upbringing, Nimitz highlights his “wonderful, white-bearded grandfather” as having a significant influence on him growing up in the hill country of Texas. His grandfather was Charles H. Nimitz, who settled in Fredericksburg, Texas and built a steam-boat shaped hotel. Young Nimitz, whose own father died before he was born, “listened wide-eyed” as his beloved grandfather told stories about his youth in the German merchant marine.
After the war had ended, Nimitz reflected back on what he learned from his grandfather’s wisdom. Nimitz recalled his grandfather saying, “The sea — like life itself — is a stern taskmaster. The best way to get along with either is to learn all you can, then do your best and don’t worry — especially about things over which you have no control.”
It would appear that this sage advice translated into Nimitz having the uncanny ability to stay calm and optimistic no matter how large the crisis or dire the situation. Indeed, throughout his career, Nimitz had the uncanny ability to not worry about things over which he had no control — he was always upbeat, and he was always calm in a crisis.
However, Nimitz was also always honest regarding the enormity of the challenges that the allied forces faced. While he was an optimist, he was also a realist. He understood that a leader must never lose faith that in the end victory will be achieved — which can never be lost — with a realistic understanding of the challenges that must be faced. During his first week in command, at a time when the situation was bleakest and ships still burned in Pearl Harbor, he said, “We have taken a tremendous wallop…but I have no doubt of the ultimate outcome.” In those few words he gave hope that was framed in realism, a pattern he consistently used over the ensuing four years of war.
Nimitz’ subordinates marveled over these qualities. When things were especially bleak, they noted how Nimitz always had the right kind of smile and optimism. When Japanese forces sank the USS Lexington early in the war — a devastating blow to the U.S. Navy — the staff in Nimitz’ headquarters were very pessimistic.” Noting the pessimism, Nimitz told his staff, “Remember this — we don’t know all about the enemy. We don’t know how badly he’s hurt. You can bet your boots he’s hurt too. Remember this — the enemy has got to be hurt. His situation is not all a bed of roses.” These words had an immediate effect on the staff. Pessimism was immediately replaced with hopefulness.
Admiral Edwin Layton, an officer who was on Nimitz’ staff during the entire four years of the war, stated the following, “Whenever I saw him, or was with him, while there were many times of great stress, there was no doubt in my mind that he had supreme, cool confidence. He often expressed great confidence in the American fighting man.”
These skills would prove to be vitally important throughout the long four years of the war. During the epic clash of the Battle of Midway in June, 1942, for example, as well as the brutal Guadalcanal campaign fought later that year, Nimitz’s steely resolve was further tested. Nimitz understood that he controlled neither public clamor for quick revenge — which was in intense in the months after Pearl Harbor — nor battles waged thousands of miles away. Nimitz had the amazing ability to “learn all he could” about a situation, work with his staff to decide on the optimal course of action, order the attack, and then calmly await the outcome, all the while maintaining an infectious upbeat attitude — trusting his subordinate commanders to properly execute the mission.
Admiral Nimitz faced intense, sustained pressure over a grueling four-year period. Throughout it all, he always remained calm, honest, humble and upbeat. Under his stellar leadership — and largely due specifically to these traits — allied forces in the Pacific gave him an overwhelming victory over the empire of Japan. That is why Admiral Nimitz is the first leader that comes to mind when I think of tremendous leadership in a crisis.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Very early in my tour as Commanding Officer of Naval Hospital, Bremerton, Washington, I was confronted with my first major challenge. In my first week in that job, the Director of Nursing Services came into my office with a look that can only be described as shock and horror. She informed me that our intensive care unit (ICU) nurses (civilians employed under contract) were threatening to go on strike. I remember trying desperately to maintain my composure as my stomach churned. Here was my first crucible moment in command. As it turns out, that challenge helped transform a relationship with vitally important staff members from one that was adversarial to trusting. More importantly, I became a much better leader because of the experience.
The issue with the ICU nurses was that they believed they were underpaid. After researching salaries for ICU nurses in the surrounding area, we discovered that they were correct — they were indeed being underpaid. After deliberating with my board of directors, I decided to give them a raise, and the strike was averted. More importantly, the next day I had my secretary make an appointment to have the union head, Charles, meet with me in my office.
The following week Charles came to my office for our meeting. I recall him shaking my hand with an extra firm grip, his right arm moving back and forth in an exaggerated manner — I suspected he was sizing me up. To be honest, I guess I was doing the same to him. We awkwardly exchanged pleasantries, but the air was filled with suspicion, tension, and mistrust. It was palpable. I thanked him for coming and then stated in simple terms the reason for the meeting — I simply wanted to get to know him. His head shot back, and he looked at me with a perplexed look. After a few clumsy seconds, he agreed. Over the next hour, our conversation touched on a wide variety of topics — where we grew up, high school years, and hobbies, among a host of others. One topic that monopolized the conversation was talk of our families — we shared a deep love and commitment to our families. Notably, neither of us made reference to the elephant in the room — the averted strike.
Initially, our words were guarded and we remained in a defensive mode — we were still sizing each other up. However, as we continued to exchange stories and the minutes ticked by, without either of us realizing it, our relationship began to change. We began to more freely open up and our distrust slowly diminished. With a couple of minutes left in our meeting and still with no mention of the averted strike, I suggested to Charles that we meet again. He quickly agreed. As he left my office, our eyes locked. It was time to address the elephant in the room.
I looked at Charles and said, “I gave the nurses a raise because their pay was less than others in the area. It was a reasonable request. I’ll always consider reasonable requests.”
Eyes still locked on one another; Charles slowly nodded in agreement. As we shook hands, I continued, “Charles, our country’s at war. We have an important mission to accomplish here. I need your help.” He nodded his head in apparent agreement, said nothing, and left my office. While I can’t speak to how Charles viewed that first meeting, I felt assured we could build a relationship to mutually benefit the command.
After that initial meeting, Charles and I got together each month. Like something out of a Godfather movie, we’d spend the first fifty-five minutes talking about our families. Only at the end of the meeting, with a couple of minutes remaining, we’d talk business. Over the ensuing months, with every meeting, our mutual respect, friendship, and trust grew.
In fact, at the end of one meeting, Charles “‘suggested”’ that I look into an issue. He went on to explain that the housekeeping staff had been waiting over six months for a new type of linen cart. Apparently, while the new cart wasn’t that much more expensive than the carts currently in use, the new cart was configurated to significantly reduce back strain on the housekeeping staff. After Charles left my office, I immediately approached my Executive Officer (Chief Operating Officer), Commander Kurt Houser. I told him of the situation and let him know of my plan — if the information proved accurate, I’d like to get the cart onboard and in use prior to my next meeting with Charles. Both Kurt and I knew that this was a great opportunity to further strengthen my relationship with Charles.
Kurt quickly verified that the purported benefit of the new carts was indeed accurate. He found the purchase order for the new carts and expedited their purchase and delivery. The carts were onboard within a couple of weeks — before my next scheduled meeting with Charles.
During our next meeting, Charles and I conducted our business in our usual routine. As Charles was getting up to leave my office, he turned to me with a smile on his face and thanked me for getting the new linen carts on board. I looked at him and said, “Thank you for bringing it up to me. Purchasing them was the right thing to do for our staff. Remember our first conversation. The linen cart was a reasonable request. I’ll always consider reasonable requests.”
Despite a very rocky start, Naval Hospital Bremerton did not have another labor dispute during my ensuing three years in command. Not only did we avoid any additional labor disputes, but Charles and I worked closely on a number of difficult and challenging issues. Our respect and trust continued to grow. All issues were resolved quietly and quickly. I helped him, and he helped me. The overall experience made me a much better leader — I more fully appreciated that the small funding of time required to build a relationship with your team members produces substantial returns.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
Earlier this year when it was becoming clear that coronavirus was a serious threat, Kim Scott, a workplace consultant, recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal article the following, “Everyone will remember how their boss responded during this time.”
Kim is absolutely correct. At any time — in crisis mode or otherwise — all behaviors of the leader mold team morale. However, during a crisis, the behaviors of the leader have an enormous influence. The fact is turbulent times are tremendous opportunities for leaders to influence morale — and consequently improve trust and team performance — in profound ways. While some behaviors are more impactful than others, there are a few that have an inordinate impact. We’ll talk about five such behaviors.
1. Get the facts
The first thing a leader needs to do is to get as many pertinent facts about the crisis as possible. Truth is difficult to find at any time, but much more difficult in the fog of a crisis. Sources need to be verified -without clarity, you may respond in a way that wastes time and valuable resources. In addition to optimizing decision making, having facts will help you build credibility with your staff.
While deployed onboard the USNS Comfort in 1994 as part of OPERATION UPHOLD DEMOCRACY, our mission suddenly changed from a humanitarian mission to a military intervention designed to remove the military regime installed by the 1991 Haitian coup that overthrew the elected President Aristide. While we were anticipating minimal casualties among the 25,000 US troops involved in the operation, the medical supplies needed to support an armed intervention is much different from that needed to support a humanitarian mission. The crew was uneasy with this change, primarily because we were unsure if we could provide adequate medical support for this new mission. The ship’s Commanding Officer, Captain Charles Blankenship, calmly asked all department heads to immediately provide him data regarding our respective ability to support this new mission. After crunching the numbers, he then held a series of Captain Calls — Navy jargon for town hall meetings — where he calmly told us in a few words that we were indeed mission capable. He then opened the meeting up to questions. What was fascinating to me was how quickly the mood in the room went from unease to “we can do this!” In a crisis, the first thing you need to do is collect facts.
2. Be visible
A crucial next step is to get in front of your team, as Captain Blankenship did in the previous story. This can be done either live (best), synchronous (good) or asynchronous (OK) webinar. Either way simply being visible can reduce uncertainty and anxiety — it builds trust. Get the facts, report them, and then turn it over for questions. Genuinely listen to your team member’s concerns. You don’t need to have all the answers. The fact is, you never will. That’s OK — the team will benefit enormously by your mere presence.
During my command tour at Naval Hospital Bremerton, Washington there emerged a threat that the federal government was going to shut down due to a congressional budget crisis. For us that meant almost one-third of the hospital workforce — about four hundred government service civilian employees — would be furloughed. They’d be out of work with no pay for an unknown length of time. As one could imagine, they were very anxious.
In an effort to alleviate their concerns, any information I received about the furloughs was forwarded as quickly as possible to the four hundred civilian employees. They had the same information that I had.
As it became increasingly likely that the government was indeed going to shut down, my Executive Officer, Captain Ken Iverson, advised me to schedule a series of lunchtime town hall meetings with the four hundred employees. He thought it important that they have the opportunity to ask me questions about the looming crisis. Given that we all had the same information, I thought it’d be a waste of time — what questions could I possibly answer?
Despite my concerns, Ken convinced me to do it. However, to prove that it was a waste of time, I secretly vowed to keep track of the number of questions that I was able to answer. I predicted there would be few. Nevertheless, we proceeded to schedule three lunchtime meetings over the next three days. At each one I started by telling them what I knew and then turned it over to them for questions.
Questions came fast and furious. As predicted, I didn’t provide a solid answer to a single question in any of the meetings. When the last meeting ended, I remember being frustrated that I didn’t have any answers. However, I did quietly congratulate myself. I was right — it indeed was a waste of time.
Fortunately, a few weeks later Congress passed a budget resolution and the government shutdown was averted. However, that was not the end of the story…
A month or so after the crisis was over it was time for all Naval Hospital Bremerton staff to complete the annual employee engagement survey. The results showed that the civilian employees had significantly more trust in my leadership than any other cohort of staff at the command. What was fascinating were their comments. Many wrote, “Captain Brouker spent time with us answering our questions on furloughs.” Reading these, one after another, I thought to myself in amazement, “Who the heck are they talking about…I didn’t answer one question!”
Sheryl Sandberg wrote, “True leadership stems from individuality that is honest and sometimes imperfectly expressed…leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.” It’s OK if you don’t know all the answers. The truth is you never will. You’ll be much more authentic — and build much more trust — by admitting you don’t know an answer rather than pretending you do.
While I certainly didn’t provide any concrete answers, what I tried to do at these meetings, as well as during other interactions, was listen to their concerns, remain calm, and be honest and optimistic. I attribute any success I had here to Ken, who not only insisted on having the meetings but also constantly reminded me of the importance of each of these behaviors.
What did I learn? During a crisis, the leader needs to be visible, calm, optimistic, and honest.
3. Be calm
In my experience, the best leaders I worked for always remained calm under all conditions. For a leader, the importance of calmness under fire is impossible to overstate. When the tempest hits, people have a natural tendency to become agitated, even panic. They begin to question the decision-making of their leaders. These reactions produce everything the organization doesn’t need in times of crisis — inefficiency, disunity and dismay. The leader who can somehow remain calm is the one who can rally and unify the troops when they need it most.
Whether a mass casualty operation onboard the USNS Comfort during the Persian Gulf War, dealing with a potential shutdown of an Intensive Care Unit due to a labor dispute or preparing for the immediate departure of your C-suite team due to operational needs, leading with calmness will help improve your ability to focus on the right things, at the right time, and in the right way. It will allow you to better communicate your needs to other people, and help you make more effective, intelligent and emotional-free decisions. Studies show that employees generally emulate the behaviors of the leader. This is especially true in a crisis. How the leader behaves generally is how team members will behave. You will set the tone for how to react. When the boss remains calm, others will more likely remain calm.
The other choice a leader has is to not remain calm. You can get angry. While it’s okay to feel anger, it’s not okay to lead with it. Anger runs counter to every positive effect that leaders should try to create in their teams — confidence, cohesion, and commitment. An angry leader will stifle creativity, and employees will be hesitant to bring problems forward. All these are the very elements needed to solve the complex problems encountered in a crisis. History has numerous examples of calamitous events occurring when teams lack creativity, confidence, cohesion, and commitment. Chernobyl. Watergate. The Tenerife air disaster.
At all levels of leadership, leaders who remain calm in any situation, especially in a crisis, help drive out anxiety and fear. The void is filled with creativity, confidence, cohesion, and commitment. In the end, trust is created and the leader is more likely be told what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear. Decision-making is optimized simply because the leader is much better informed.
4. Be optimistic — but stay honest
In their fascinating book “The Leader’s Bookshelf”, Admiral James Stavrakis and Manning Ansell surveyed more than two hundred active and retired four-star military officers regarding their favorite leadership books. The authors then assembled their responses to identify the top fifty books, most of which dealt with leading in crisis. Reviewing these fifty books in-depth, they concluded that one common leadership behavior that emerged that was essential to successfully navigate a crisis was optimism. When in the tempest, people need hope. The leader needs to provide that hope.
In my experience and research, given the immeasurable harm pessimism brings to team performance, a leader has no choice but to be optimistic. Succumbing to pessimism is simply not a viable option.
Regarding team performance, on any given day, a pessimistic leader will cause more harm than an absent leader. Given that, leaders have three choices regarding optimism. They can either be optimistic, fake it, or don’t show up. Pessimism simply has no place in leadership.
This second choice — “faking it” — elicits much dialogue in my seminars. Often, participants will argue that leaders will lose credibility with their team if they fake it. I disagree. My last tour of duty in the Navy was as chief of staff at Navy Treatment West (NMW). My boss was Admiral Forrest Faison. NMW was responsible for the health care of eight hundred thousand patients and employed fifteen thousand individuals over an area that covered twelve time zones. Trust me when I say I had ample opportunity to report bad news to my boss during all hours of the day and night. In my position, I was keenly aware of the numerous challenges my boss faced. Never — regardless of how urgent or bizarre the issue, the time of day or night we talked, or the number of pressing issues on his plate at the time — never did he say anything negative when told bad news or a new crisis or challenge was upon us. His responses were always positive and upbeat. How many times was he faking it? I’ll never know. Frankly, it doesn’t matter.
Did he lose credibility with me or any other staff members? Absolutely not. In fact, we loved and trusted him more for it because we knew he was doing it for us. Admiral Faison understood that his behaviors during our interactions, especially when bad news was reported, created a culture at NMW. He owned that culture, and the culture he created was one of optimism. Not surprisingly, NMW surpassed other regions on all key performance indicators during his time as our commander. Not surprisingly, Admiral Faison went on to become the 38th surgeon general of the Navy.
History is replete with examples of leaders successfully faking optimism in times of challenge and anxiousness. In July 1942, General Dwight Eisenhower was promoted to lieutenant general and named to head OPERATION TORCH, the Allied invasion of French North Africa during World War II. In front of his immediate staff, General Eisenhower maintained an air of confidence and optimism throughout the campaign. As D-Day for the invasion drew near, General Eisenhower continued to appear the picture of confidence. In reality, in the privacy of his quarters, he was irritable and often depressed, smoking up to four packs of Camel cigarettes a day.
On the eve of the invasion, Eisenhower wrote a fascinating communiqué to his boss, General George Marshall. In it Eisenhower candidly admits that “it has been a trifle difficult to keep up, in front of everybody, a proper attitude of confidence and optimism.” In his book on OPERATION TORCH entitled “An Army at Dawn”, Rick Atkinson accurately captures the true meaning of that short communiqué when he writes, “For now, the concealment of General Eisenhower’s anxieties was part of the art of leadership.”
In other words, Eisenhower was faking it. He faked it because he understood that it was part of the art of leadership. More importantly, Atkinson accurately describes faking optimism as something a leader sometimes must do in order to succeed, especially in a crisis.
While optimism is an essential behavior for leaders in all situations — and especially in a crisis — the optimism must be framed in realism. While the leader must be optimistic, he must also be honest. In a crisis, people want — and deserve — the truth. Don’t tell them what they want to hear, tell them what they need to hear. How does a leader walk this knife’s edge of optimism and honesty?
Admiral James Stockdale was a United States Navy vice admiral and aviator awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, during which he was an American prisoner of war for over seven years. Admiral Stockdale is a true American hero and a tremendous leader. I encourage any leader to read more about his amazing story.
In Collin’s classic book Good to Great, Collins writes about a conversation he had with Admiral Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp. When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Stockdale then added:
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the “Stockdale Paradox”.
This is indeed a paradox. If a leader ignores the challenges, the leader will appear naïve and out of touch. If the leader mires in the challenges, pessimism will spread. This will demoralize, demotivate, and undermine the effectiveness of the team.
How does a leader offer a practical approach to this paradox?
Determine what is within your ability to control and what is not. The logical question is this — why would we spend precious time and energy concerning ourselves with anything we cannot control? In a crisis, try to disregard the many items that are outside of your control — and there will be many. Instead focus on that which you do control. What a leader controls are their behaviors, and that is where your focus should be. How we behave during the crisis — which is 100% under your control — will directly influence how our team will perform during the crisis.
In summary, here are the five key behaviors a leader must employ during a crisis:
1. Get as many pertinent facts about the crisis as possible.
2. Be visible. Get in front of your people. Listen to their concerns. Schedule these events with some periodicity.
3. Be honest. Tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
4. Be calm. Show a steady hand, confident smile and calm disposition.
5. Be optimistic. Bring hope by creating a vision for life after the crisis passes.
During times of crisis, all behaviors of the leader have a significant impact on culture. Morale is fickle, and while these are crucible moments for leaders, they are also tremendous opportunities. When done right, tremendous trust can be generated and team performance can soar.
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d like to inspire a movement to enlighten leaders that the key to effective leadership is not command and control but compassion and care. Acts of caring build enormous trust, and trust is the key to high performing teams.
Is trust lacking in the workplace? Absolutely. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Considering that only one in eight leaders worldwide are engaged leaders, there is enormous untapped potential to create much more trust in the workplace. If even half the leaders make this a priority, imagine how the world could be different. If schools; universities; banks; manufacturers; retailers; hospitals; churches; and charitable organizations that serve the public by supporting the arts, funding medical research, or championing human rights causes, or a host of other organizations, were led by trusted leaders, imagine the possibilities.
Leading with compassion and care is not difficult — it takes some instruction and discipline. My passion is to help provide that instruction and change the way people lead.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
General Colin Powell. I’ve read much about him and his story is inspirational on a number of levels. He came from a humble beginning — he grew up in Harlem, New York, attended a community college, and proceeded to have a remarkable journey to reach the highest levels of leadership in both the military and government. He’s an amazing leader with numerous gifts. I believe his greatest leadership gift is his ability to listen. I’ve heard from people who have met him in social gatherings that he has the uncanny ability of making you feel as if you’re the only person in the room. That’s a gift! Meeting him would be incredible opportunity to learn from one of the greatest leaders of my lifetime.
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Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.