Leadership Barometer 78 Handle Crises

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Handle Crises

One easy way to measure the caliber of a leader is to observe him or her in a crisis. Great leaders take command, but do so in a special way that weaker leaders try unsuccessfully to emulate.

In the first place they have the ability to diffuse internal crises and avoiding a kind of mob scene where workers gang up on the leader.

Secondly in an increasingly fragmented or virtual workforce, the ability to see a crisis coming is much more of a challenge.

Great leaders increase their communication with people who are working remotely to identify issues while they impending or very small.

The distinction begins even before the crisis is evident. It is a mindset.

Average leaders take a rest when things are going smoothly. They focus on the little fires and beat them down so they do not spread.

Other than that, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the mentality. We might as well enjoy the way things are going, since it is smooth sailing.

Plan for Future Problems

By contrast, the great leader sees the world as a series of calm times and storms, some of them hurricanes. The calm times are opportunities to sharpen our skills and reactions for the next storm. For sure, it will come, so we ought to be looking at our past successes or failures in prior storms to get ready for the next one.

In business, the magnitude or timing of the next storm is far less predictable than in nature. For example, in late summer, we can expect several hurricanes to crop up in the Atlantic and work their way toward the mainland U.S.

Once they form, computer models can predict, with various levels of accuracy, the strength of the storm and if, when, and where the storm will come ashore.

Most crises in business are less predictable. Some trends can be tracked, but usually the big disruptive events are things that are impossible to forecast.

For example, if we are manufacturing aircraft, we can plot the seasonality and long-term trends, attempting to anticipate peak loads. Then, a fire in the factory causes a crisis that is a total surprise.

The impact of the crisis on our business dwarfs anything we had been planning based on market projections, yet we are forced to deal with it immediately.

Also, note that when people are working from different locations, it is much harder to keep an eye on everything.

Problems may kindle from afar and grow into major disruptions before knowledge of them is evident to everyone. That is why additional communication is vital.

Leaders need to develop closer ties with remote workers than they might have had in the full office environment to keep two-way information flowing. It is tempting for people to “disappear” into their work and not want to “bother” the leader with issues.

When leaders work to develop these closer ties, it facilitates working together well during a crisis.

During the Storm

Once the crisis hits, the average leader becomes unglued for a while. There are so many things to do at once, and triage in the business world is often a neglected skill, so the leader wonders whether to call a meeting or let the front-line people work on the most urgent issues without interruption.

Communication channels have not been set up to handle the chaos, so instructions or intentions come through as garbled signals, especially for remote locations.

Think of the emergency responders in the World Trade Center after the first tower fell. Instructions were not getting through to all responders, and many additional lives were lost because of it.

The average leader somehow manages to deploy an effort to fight the situation, but it is often meager compared to the proportion of the disaster.

People wonder why there was not more specific leadership coming through when it was needed most.

Great Leadership Amid the Chaos

By contrast, the great leader has refined the procedures for communication and action ahead of time. Even though the exact nature of the crisis is not known, the preparation phase is an ongoing high priority.

There are often mock “fire drills” to practice damage control and hone communication procedures to be ready in case the real thing happens.

For example, a CEO might arrange to distribute a fake internal news release that a disgruntled customer is out on social media spreading false rumors about their products. This could force people to react with everything from retractions, to insurance negotiations, to legal briefings, to press statements, etc.

After practicing the mock disaster, they could hold a debrief meeting and might determine the internal communication between executives was practically nonexistent during the crisis. This debriefing effort needs to include all of the remote resources as well as those working in the central office.

All of the managers were doing their best to keep a lid on the damage, but the total effort was not well coordinated. This debrief would allow the team to design an information dissemination process so if a crisis ever surfaced, they would be in a far better position.

These preparatory actions are not rocket science, but they are usually neglected by weak leaders. The strong leaders take the time ahead of a crisis to get everyone prepared and thus come out a lot better when the real crisis hits; more preparation leads to less damage.

Strong leaders leverage the energy caused by a crisis so they end up better and stronger as a company than they were before the crisis occurred.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.

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