Learn to embrace crises as your chance to shine. Crises are the vehicle which can accelerate your career: the greater the crisis, the greater your opportunity.
Crises are the moments of truth which separate leaders from followers. They are moments which accelerate your career: you succeed fast or you fail fast. In moments of real crisis, you can see power and success ebb and flow between executives as some step up and others step back. We do not know where, when, or why the next crisis will happen. But we know it will happen, so it pays to know how you can turn crisis into opportunity.
As a leader, you have to respond to a crisis in three ways: substance, style, and sense.
Most crises involve high degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty. No one is quite sure what to do, or who should do it. Most people play it safe and wait to see what happens. But if you have the courage to take a risk, you can step into the power vacuum which each crisis creates. To succeed, follow five broad principles:
Step up, not back: seize the moment. Your first and most important decision is to decide if this is your battle to fight or not. The decision about who takes control often happens very early and very fast. In practice, the decision is made by someone simply deciding to take control. There is an easy way to take control: suggest a solution, or at least a way forward, for dealing with the crisis. You will then be invited or challenged to put your suggestion into practice. Your idea leads to action, and once you take action, you have started to take control.
Build your coalition. Movies are not a good guide to crisis management. In the movies, the lone hero always saves the world, often with some magical powers. If you try to be the lone hero, you will fail unless you have a magical power, in which case you should use your magic to save the world. Your source of magical powers comes from harnessing the support of your colleagues. You will have to put in long hours persuading, cajoling, and influencing people. Your goal is not to persuade everyone, because there are always doubters and cynics who will happily waste your time. Your goal is to make sure the top decision-makers support you, and to build a coalition of them willing to make it happen. Let the cynics waste their own time.
Drive to action. There are often plenty of voices who want to analyse the past, present, and future. Analysis is safe because it is risk free, and it sounds very managerial. It also achieves nothing. You need to act fast, because crises rarely get better: they have a nasty habit of spinning out of control. In a crisis, people want to feel that there is hope, that there is a way forward. They want to follow someone: that person can be you. By following, they delegate all the risk and all the problems to you, but they also delegate all the power to you.
Be flexible. No plan survives first contact with reality. This is especially true in a crisis where new facts and events unfold. Your first steps may turn out to be steps in the wrong direction. Do not keep walking the wrong way. Changing direction is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. It shows you have the confidence to listen, to learn, and to adapt where necessary. Do not be afraid to take advice: you need confidence to ignore some advice and to act on others.
Over-communicate. Crises breed rumours, fear, and doubt. You have to stay in control of your core message, which is that you are bringing the crisis under control and you have a way forward. You need to stay one step ahead of any bad news, so that you can manage it. To stay ahead of the news, you need to keep listening so you know what is about to happen, before it happens. Keep communicating to top bosses both formally and informally: they want to know that you are in control, because they want an easy life.
Think back to previous bosses and crises you have encountered. You will probably remember the outline of what happened. But research on witness reliability shows such memories are unreliable: different people will remember the facts differently. We tend to remember the story we want to remember, one in which we are always right. If facts are elusive, you will probably have far greater clarity about how people behaved. And the chances are that others will share your views, even if they cannot pin down the precise reasons for their views. We will remember some bosses and colleagues for being helpful, devious, bossy, evasive, positive, or cynical. This means that you will be remembered more for how you behave than for what you do, unless you were responsible for complete triumph or disaster.
If you want to be seen to have had a ‘good’ crisis, you need to act the part. All good leaders are peddlers of hope, clarity, and certainty. No one wants to work for someone who is pessimistic, indecisive, and unsure of what to do. On a good day, we can all offer hope, clarity, and certainty. But you will not be judged by how you are like when you are living on easy street. You will be judged by how you behave in moments of truth, when no one is sure what to do.
Learn to wear the mask of leadership. However you may feel inside, project the image which you want people to remember. Being positive, clear, and confident will spread confidence across the team. If you start the day with your little cloud of gloom, you can be sure that will spread like a major depression across the whole team by the end of the day. Choose your mask well, and keep it on.
Crises are not just about how you manage others, they are about how you manage yourself. Crises can be very stressful: high stakes, high time pressure, and low control are a good way to earn an ulcer. Here are three things you can do to manage yourself:
Sleep. If there is any magical power in a crisis, it comes from a surprising source: sleep. Research shows that someone who has lost four hours of sleep has the same reaction time as someone who has twice the UK legal limit of blood alcohol for driving. Sleep deprivation leads to low performance on all cognition tests. You may look like a hero if you do not sleep all night, but you will end up acting like a fool.
Share the burden. Do not attempt to carry the whole world on your shoulders. Find someone you can lean on to share your doubts and frustrations: it could be friends, family, or a professional coach. But do not share your doubts and nightmares with your team: keep peddling hope, clarity, and certainty, especially if you are feeling doubtful, confused, and uncertain. You cannot play the part in public unless you are able to unburden your fears and doubts in private.
Stay positive. The University of Pennsylvania is where the positive psychology movement started, and they have done deep research on stress. There is an alternative to post-traumatic stress, which is post-traumatic growth: some people grow stronger from stress. There are some simple routines which can help:
- Count your blessings. Try this simple exercise: recount all the rubbish things which have happened to you today and you will feel negative. Recount just three good things, and you will feel better. Even in the midst of a crisis there will be some good things, even if it is only that the sky did not fall down. Research shows that this one exercise, sustained over time, has a huge positive effect.
- Focus on what you can control. The difference between pressure and stress is control. Most people respond well to pressure, but pressure without control leads to stress. So learn to control what you can, influence what you cannot control, and do not worry about what you can neither control nor influence.
- Never doubt that you will prevail. This is not a fantasy where you hope to get lucky because hope is not a method and luck is not a strategy. You need to face brutal facts. But once you face them, you can work out how to deal with them. Do not run from the demons of fear, but confront them. Only when you know what the worst can be, can you manage it.
Learn to embrace crises as your chance to shine. The first time anyone faces a crisis, it is hard work. It is also risky, because you will not know what to do. But the more crises you face, the better you get at dealing with them. Crises are the vehicle which can accelerate your career: the greater the crisis, the greater your opportunity.
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