Whenever I give leadership talks to various groups—especially to college kids just beginning their journeys—I invariably hear how it’s easier to lead when times are good, but they want to know what to do when times are bad. Don’t get me wrong, I feel blessed to be in a leadership position with truly great people around me. However, being the leader is never “easy.” Immensely satisfying to be sure, but easy? No.
Having said that, I know what they are getting at when they say those things. Managing a growing business is a lot easier than leading through difficult times. Growth periods don’t test you the way a large-scale problem or a full-blown crisis does.
Nor do the good times determine whether you will stay on track in the heat of a battle. Running a stable business requires discipline and managerial skills, but it doesn’t test real leadership capabilities. The tough times do test such capabilities.
Here are six crisis leadership lessons that I have gathered through the years:
They are relevant to all leaders—from those in the early stages of their careers to recently appointed CEOs—to help them stay true to themselves when they face their defining moments in leadership when crisis hits.
1. Face reality, starting with yourself
Until you acknowledge that you are facing a serious problem, including whatever your role in creating it might have been, you cannot move forward to solve it. John F. Kennedy once said, “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” Sometimes, you have to take on the role of the orphan.
You cannot get through a crisis alone, so don’t try to carry the entire burden yourself. Reach out to others inside your organization—and in your personal life as well—to share a bit of the burden and help you come out a winner. Just remember that while your colleagues and peers can help tremendously on the business side, you are the top dog for a reason. The final say is yours and yours alone. Gather all significant information you can and make your best decision.
On the personal side, friends and family can support your mental well-being and can often give perspective. The downside is that they can be a bit overprotective—especially a spouse, partner or significant other—if they perceive the situation as a threat in some way.
3. Don’t treat the symptoms without treating the cause
Under the pressures of a crisis, there is temptation to jump to quick-fix solutions that give the appearance of fixing the problem. Unfortunately, that often merely masks the issues and leaves your organization vulnerable to repeating the crisis. The only way to solve these problems is to understand their root cause and implement permanent solutions.
When you are confronting significant problems, your first reaction may be that things can’t really be that bad. That’s what the captain of the Titanic probably thought as well. In its early stages, you may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg, and things may get a lot worse. To survive, prepare for a long struggle against the worst-case scenario, so you can eventually pass through the eye of the storm.
5. Use the opportunity to make other changes
The challenges you face represent your best opportunity to make major changes in your organization. This is because tough times decrease the resistance to change that usually exists in good times. Move vigorously to take the actions necessary to strengthen your position and ideas as you emerge from the problem.
You are the boss and the leader, so in a crisis, everyone watches what you do. Whether you like it or not, you are in the spotlight both inside and outside the company. Can you stay focused? Or will you succumb to the pressure? If you panic, that will permeate throughout the organization. The key phrase here is that old saying, “Never let ‘em see you sweat.”
Look at a crisis as a gift. It provides you an excellent opportunity that may not come again to reshape your business and your industry and emerge as a winner. But you’ve got to be bold and focused to seize it.
The best leaders emerge from a crisis as winners because they are both aggressive and courageous in turning the challenges to their advantage. Beyond that, they are passionate about using their leadership to make a difference in their employees, their organization, and the world.