One of the most common questions that I get asked a lot, especially with how rapidly business changes, is concerning how one should effectively lead in the midst of a crisis. For some the word crisis is used in extreme fashion. For instance, a military unit under heavy fire and without reinforcements would be in the midst of a crisis. There’s no question about that. But crisis can come in many different ways, and we’ll all find ourselves in the midst of crisis at some point in our life. For most, crises of different types will arise many times throughout their lifetime. What we’ll ultimately find is that if we prepare well, crisis will bring out the absolutely best in us. We’ll get to more on that in a bit.
Crisis in an of itself is fascinating. Not because we desire bad circumstances or because we wish to see bad things happen to other people, but because it’s the single best way to learn hard lessons. That includes leadership lessons, which we’ll focus on here, but also a multitude of other lessons. Think of any great action movie. For me, that’s Die Hard, what I consider to be the greatest movie ever made. John McLane found himself in crisis after crisis. We love the way he responded to those crises. Without crisis, what would any action movie be. Most movies, for that matter, even comedies, have some form of a crisis. It’s what makes stories memorable and interesting.
Crisis can occur both on a professional and a person level. There can be financial crisis – for instance a company can find itself without adequate cash on hand because of a dramatic, unforeseen circumstance. There can be market-driven crisis. For example, a competitor may make a strategic move or introduce a new product that directly threatens your business, necessitating that you respond quickly and accordingly. There can be personnel or staffing crisis where a key team member leaves the company at a very inopportune time.
It’s the same on the personal level as well. A family member can pass away. Unexpected medical bills pop up. The list goes on
What’s so incredible about crisis though, is that despite the vast array of potential crisis that there is in our respective lives, the mechanics of how to lead in the midst of this are very much the same from one crisis to the next.
The negative impact of crisis is fairly obvious, but I think it’s beneficial for us to talk about how crisis can impact us from a leadership perspective.
First and foremost, crisis makes it very easy for us to make bad decisions. In the midst of a crisis, we get emotional and lose a proper handle on our ability to make rational decisions. In many cases, crisis causes us to rush, which further leads to bad decisions because of the pressure that time puts upon us, but also because it can causes us to proceed without a full suite of information.
Crisis impacts us in other ways too. In the midst of a professional crisis, it’s not uncommon to see team departures because morale falls. On a personal level, that can mean a spouse or family member leaving.
I argue, though, that while crisis in itself doesn’t originate from a good place, and that it has many bad characteristics, crisis can be a foundation for tremendous good. Crisis is where we see the very best in people come out. It’s when firefighters show themselves to be heroes as they rescue families from burning buildings. It’s when police officers serve and protect innocent citizens from people that mean them harm.
But it’s more. It’s when unexpected, low-ranking people at companies introduce an idea that completely changes the trajectory of a company that days before seemed doomed. It’s when a father teaches his son self-defense and how to handle bullies after he’s been picked on at school. It’s when a family sets up a foundation to prevent drunk driving after a loved one has been taken from them because someone had one too many drinks at the bar.
Crisis stinks. It does. But it’s crisis that allows us to not only learn, but to grow. Crisis is opportunity. Crisis is what we as leaders must prepare ourselves for. It’s at that point that all of the time spent developing leadership habits, attacking weakness in our lives, and spending long hours outworking the competition must come together to allow us to lead ourselves and our teams to a better opportunity. To a better day. What alternative do we have? None.
In college, a friend and I were getting ready to race our first Ironman triathlon. After a long swim in the morning, we set off in the Arizona summer heat for a 100+ mile bikeride. Coming to the end of that ride, we were on the brink of complete exhaustion, but instead we talked ourselves into going out for a 10 mile training run to finish out the day. As we breathlessly ran through the heat we kept muttering something to ourselves: nothing worth remembering is ever achieved easily. No, to be clear, Ironman is not a crisis. But that statement’s truth holds up. The moments that shape us as individuals, the moments that are pivotal in our lives, will not be easy and seamless. They will be difficult. These are moments when we’ll question ourselves. But it’s these moments that we must seek out, because without them, we will amount to very little.
I’m not sitting here in an ivory tower telling you how great something that at the time is so terrible can be. I’ve lived it. I know the “suck” that comes with these moments. I’ve worked with companies that were moments away from bankruptcy. I’ve spent nights in hospitals as my newborns struggled for their lives. I’ve gone to bed waiting for test results that may doom me to an early grave. My point is this: none of us are immune to crisis, but with the right preparation and the right plan of attack, we can tackle whatever is put in front of us.
So that brings us to the million dollar question. How do you lead in crisis?
First and foremost, whenever I have to make a decision, but ESPECIALLY when in a time of crisis, I make sure to “remove” myself from the situation mentally. I do whatever I can to take emotion out of play. That can mean that I get up and walk around the room to see things from a different angle. Sometimes, I imagine myself watching a meeting as if on a security camera. It can also be physical though. Often, when I’m working through a problem in a tough time, I’ll hit pause and go for a run. Magically, when I return, the solution to the problem has worked itself out in the background of my mind. It’s a bit paradoxical, but sometimes, the harder you work, the more difficult it is to make the right decision.
The second thing that I do is very clearly establish what my objective is. That seems basic and perhaps foolish, but in the fog of battle, missions and objectives can get lost. An example that I see a lot is that of credit card debt. Individuals are desperate to get out of debt, but the decisions that they make are actually serving to continue their standard of living, rather than attacking the debt head on by trimming spending in other areas so that they can more quickly and fully pay off the debt. It’s simple, but if you’re in the midst of a crisis, review your decisions and the impact that they have. What master are they actually serving?
In teams, one further complexity to this is that each individual may be approaching a slightly different goal. Aligning around a fully clarified goal is the key. If everyone has a different idea of what the goal is, you can’t operate in the midst of the pressure that crisis creates. The main ingredient for this is simplification. I talk about simplification a lot, because whether or not you’re in crisis, simplification is an ingredient for success. In the midst of a crisis, however, it’s perhaps the most meaningful of the ingredients.
In fact, the more demanding a circumstance, the simpler a goal must be. If something isn’t fully simplified, the goal itself can appear too daunting: your team must feel that a goal is achievable.
Years ago, I was the Head of Expense Management at a company that was in a true financial crisis. We were bleeding cash with no real avenue to increase the rate at which we were bringing in new cash. We knew we had to dramatically reduce our expenses as a company. But simply saying that you want to reduce something isn’t a simplistic enough goal for everyone to align around. The pressure of the situation could also have pushed us to make some knee-jerk, but ill-informed cuts that would have perhaps further accelerated the revenue decline and put our expenses in even more turbulent waters.
So what did we do? We simplified. We gave ourselves the goal of finding the single most impactful area for expense cuts within the business and started with that. By starting with a simple, yet clear-cut goal, we put ourselves on a more immediate road to success with immediate traction. The alternative was to have our team go into each business unit and to just start slashing expenses. That would have created more chaos for the business units, and with almost certainty would have cut very productive expense dollars.
Lastly, when you find yourself in the midst of a crisis, you absolutely must prioritize. Too many companies have died because when things got tough, they tried to do too much rather than fully focusing on what mattered the most. The simple fact is that you will never have the manpower or wherewithal to do everything. When operating in crisis-mode, there is an even higher necessity for quality in execution. By focusing on multiple things, you create insurmountable distraction. What you have to do is to identify what you’re ONE thing is – your highest priority and focus on that. Don’t fight battles that don’t need to be fought.
In the previous example of leading an expense reduction initiative, we struggled at the onset with fighting those battles that didn’t need to be fought. The conversation often strayed away from the actual cuts themselves and focused on how exactly these cuts were to be implemented. Sure, that’s important, but we can never get to that without first identifying the cuts themselves. By focusing on creating action around a sole purpose: the largest expense cut within each business unit, we were able to achieve a high level of execution in that specific area. From there we moved onto other battles, such as how to implement, but without identifying the cut that battle never would have been fought, so why focus on it from the onset?
So there you have it. When you find yourself in a crisis:
- Remove yourself – mentally and physically
- Simplify and clarify