Crises are emotionally charged turning points that can bring about swift, radical change. They can induce instability leading to undesirable outcomes that cost time, money, customers, careers and, in the worst of scenarios, lives. Crises can be natural, like an earthquake, or human-induced, like civil unrest. They can be sudden or smoldering, high-impact or low-impact. Sometimes organizations, people and reputations recover. Many times, they do not.
According to a Deloitte global survey, 88 percent of surveyed executives explicitly focus on reputational risk as a key business challenge – and, toward that end, reputation damage is considered one of the prime risk concerns among business executives around the world.
When it comes to crisis, it’s not a matter of if, but when – and it can come in many forms: social media attack, bad press, negative community sentiment, customer backlash, sexual harassment claims, discrimination, board dissension, mismanagement, pandemic, natural disaster, litigation, investigation, cyber-attack… the list goes on and on.
But what separates the “good” leaders from those in the “exceptional” category is what they do before and upon the onset of crisis. What happens in the first minutes, hours and days will greatly dictate trajectory and impact your personal and professional brand.
My many years of experience have shown me the two elements that, if embraced, will help a leader cycle through crisis successfully:
- Admit you’re in trouble. Crisis is not the time to flaunt a big ego. Nor is it a time to shy away from the storm due to feelings of embarrassment. Truly great leaders attack issues head on during times of adversity because crises don’t simply go away on their own. If you’re hoping that tomorrow will be a better day or another big news story will make everyone forget about you, lose that train of thought. Put your hand up, admit you are losing control and need help – this simple act will pay huge dividends.
- Ask for Help. After putting your hand up and admitting you’re in crisis, it is imperative to reach out to your most trusted advisors for help. Oftentimes, they look through a different lens than you and provide perspective that can be instrumental to your success. There is no shame in asking for help; in fact, it is a sign of strength. Leaders want two things from me when they engage – help them maintain control and weather the storm. If you do these two things, you’re on your way!
In addition to the basics, operating with uncompromised integrity, taking responsibility and being decisive are more keys to success – crisis leadership is an art, not science. I believe you don’t spin your way through crisis, you lead your way through. Crisis is a growth opportunity. As counterintuitive as that sounds, crisis is opportunity to flex your leadership muscle for those who place their trust in you and the organization you are charged with leading.
For leaders at any level, I offer the following tips to help you meet the moment:
- Be predictive. Organizations must be predictive and create organizational muscle memory through extensive assessment, policy development and training. Organizations who evaluate their company-based and industry threats cycle through crisis more quickly. They then become bigger, faster, stronger after their defining moment than they were before.
- Tell your story. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And, if someone else tells your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want told. As I mentioned before, a crisis rarely “goes away.” Be transparent and get in front of the media and general public versus refusing to comment. The ability to tell your story is your most important asset and instrumental to your growth strategy.
- Understand what motivates people who behave badly. The five core primal drivers I’ve observed that make people do bad things include power, control, money, sex, and revenge. Be wary of people who are strictly motivated by one or more of these drivers. Use this way of thinking about crisis to your advantage, understand your points of leverage.
- Command the facts. Too many times professionals make rash decisions and jump out on camera with either no substantive information or rely solely on the “no comment” or “I don’t have that information” phraseology. Bottom line: when you address a crisis, have something important to say – and maintain a strong command of the facts. Trust but verify is alive and well as information evolves and nuances matter.
- Remove the opportunists. I’ve seen it over and over again. When a leader is in trouble or wobbling due to crisis, there are very few who maintain a strong sense of loyalty to the one they serve while many others remain silent or work covertly to push the leader out the door – they hope they can sit in the’ big chair’ one day soon. When you are embroiled in crisis, it can be a very lonely, thankless road – you become a perceived liability to others who are not willing to embrace risk, even though you may be 100% right. The DNA of the opportunist is such that their loyalty is stalwart as long as it is politically expedient to do so – they ultimately want to advantage themselves and their careers. These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Identify the wolves and remove them – they are there to facilitate your demise. Depend on those you trust.
- Have faith in a higher being or larger purpose. When a person is on the brink of or embroiled in crisis, keenly focusing on taking care of one’s mind, body and spirit is critically important. Spirit, in particular, becomes even more essential when people feel they’ve lost control of a situation. I’ve worked with many troubled leaders where their renewed sense of spirituality, or belief in a higher being or larger purpose, helped them successfully navigate their storm.
- Be direct. There is a tendency to soften words and not be direct with ominous news. While initially shocking, people prefer the bottom line right away. I call this bad habit “circling the runway” vs. “landing the plane.” Do not circle the runway with negative or emergent news; immediately tell people what is going on. You will earn their confidence and trust more quickly. By doing this, you enable more timely and better decision-making.
Bottom line, anyone can lead when profits are up, employee culture is amazing, and customers are happy. It takes a special kind of person to lead during crisis. Again, it’s not a matter of if, but when! Are you prepared to meet the moment?
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