In our current world of accelerating uncertainty, one thing is certain: you will face crises as a leader. Why? Because your operating environment is more complex than ever, and people are human. Although we’d all like to avoid crises, they’re unavoidable. Yes, good leadership can prevent some, but eventually all leaders encounter them. The question is, “How can you effectively lead your team through your next inevitable crisis?” Here are five tips that may help:
- Rapidly analyze the situation. Huddle with your direct reports, and also bring into the conversation anyone who has a good grasp of the facts surrounding the situation. Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions or prematurely place blame. Focus on what happened given what you currently know. Then discuss what the implications and impacts are for people within your organization as well as key external stakeholders, and what immediate actions you can take to help stem the crisis and mitigate further damage. Once aligned, initiate the immediate actions.
- Shape your communications. Focus on honesty and empathy. Develop trust with people inside and outside your organization by taking responsibility, telling the truth, and acknowledging the emotional challenges people are experiencing as a result of the crisis. Develop a concise message that describes what happened, empathetically acknowledges the impact, and explains what you are doing about it. Respond quickly so you can drive the narrative rather than react to it.
- Exercise visible leadership. Step into the spotlight and be ready to take the heat for your team. Start by sharing your message internally with all of your team members, offering them the opportunity to ask questions and instructing them to refer any media inquiries to you. Then communicate the same message to people outside your organization through appropriate media channels. Conclude your media comments by announcing you’ve commenced an investigation (more on that in a minute), and that you’ll update everyone as you learn more. Throughout this process remember that accountability and transparency are your keys to developing trust.
- Create a crisis action team. Carefully consider the expertise needed for this team based on the nature of the crisis, and ensure they have adequate information flow to begin piecing together a data-driven, cohesive view of the facts. Ask them to collaboratively generate and assess potential courses of action for you to rapidly implement to mitigate the crisis. Begin by assessing the results of your immediate actions, and adjust next steps as new facts come to light. Implement your mitigating actions with a sense of prudent urgency to stay ahead of the media.
- Initiate an investigation. As soon as the crisis begins to stabilize, commence an investigation. Depending on the nature of the crisis, consider starting with an internal investigation to generate rapid initial insights. Then follow with an external investigation to help mitigate any potential concerns regarding objectivity and integrity. Thoughtfully assess the expertise needed on the investigating teams in order to ensure rigor and accuracy in the findings. At a minimum, results of the investigations should include probable cause(s) of the crisis and recommendations for how to prevent a similar crisis from occurring in the future. Use these findings to update your internal team and external stakeholders. Own your mistakes, vow to do better, and to put into place measures for continuous improvement within your organization.
Leading through a crisis is one of the most difficult and emotionally challenging aspects of being a leader. Perhaps you’ve been there. I have. I’ve also coached a number of senior executives through various crises, and I know they can take the wind out of you. When you feel like you can’t take another blow, I’ve found Theodore Roosevelt’s words about “The Man in the Arena” to be an inspiring source of resilience and resolve:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
The next time you find yourself in the crisis arena, I hope you can see it as a crucible opportunity that can help hone you as a leader and prepare you for greater things to come. By taking responsibility for what happened, communicating with integrity, and improving from your mistakes, you’ll be in the good company of daring leaders who know how to turn errors and shortcomings into high achievement toward a worthy cause.
To dive deeper on the subject of leading through uncertainty and adversity, check out The Substance of Leadership: A Practical Framework for Effectively Leading a High-Performing Team. Also, take the five-minute Performance Pressure Test for more insight into how well you’re performing as a leader.