Bill George’s 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis

Bill George, professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School and former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, has identified 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis. Leading in a crisis is often the greatest test of leadership. George observes:

“In Chinese, the character for the word crisis is made up of two symbols, danger and opportunity. That’s exactly what it represents for you as a leader. Although there is always the danger of failing, guiding people through a major problem is your best opportunity to develop your leadership. That’s why I recommend that young leaders get down on the playing field early in their careers rather than commenting from the press box.” (p. 4)

Although none of us want a crisis, the truth is most of us will one day find ourselves leading through one. George’s seven lessons provide a valuable roadmap when that day comes.

1. Face Reality, Starting with Yourself – George acknowledges that this is the most important lesson. A crisis cannot be solved without acknowledging that it exists and being honest about your role in creating it. Furthermore, leaders are responsible for getting the rest of the team to acknowledge the crisis so that appropriate action can be taken to resolve it. At Medtronic, George would tell his team, “You’ll never get fired for having a problem, but you will get fired for covering one up. Integrity is not the absence of lying. Rather, it is telling the whole truth, so that we can gather together the best people in the company to solve the problem” (p. 23-24).

2. Don’t be Atlas; Get the World Off Your Shoulders – Leaders cannot face or navigate a crisis alone. They must have a rock solid team in place so they can resolve the crisis with the greatest level of precision, expertise, and effectiveness. George wisely observes, “By the time you are facing a crisis, it is too late to form your support team. The time to do so is when things are going smoothly” (p. 38). To further avoid the “Atlas” mentality, leaders must build resilience into their lives by keeping their body in shape, their mind sharp, their spirit high, and not taking themselves too seriously.

3. Dig Deep for the Root Cause – A problem is not always what it appears to be on the surface. Because leaders have a bias toward action, it’s easy to solve surface level problems rather than digging for the root cause. George observes, “If you surround yourself only with positive people, your team may reinforce your natural instincts to solve the problem before it is fully understood” (p. 47-48). To get to the root cause, leaders must ask “probing questions” so they don’t create “superficial solutions.” Time is of the essence when crisis hits, so it’s easy to stop digging for root causes. Leaders must keep wide open communication channels as their teams work together to get to the cause. Failure to do so will only lead to bigger problems with unintended consequences. The leader’s role is to “bring people together to confront their worst fears and address the risks” (p. 59).

4. Get Ready for the Long Haul – Leaders need the right perspective when crisis hits. Usually, almost always, the situation gets worse before it gets better. Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy once said, “A lot of crises seem to happen overnight, but they have really long roots, like ten to fifteen years in terms of the source of the real problems.” Because crises are typically bigger and more complex than originally anticipated, it is crucial for organizations to have sufficient cash reserves. They must be prepared for the long haul. Furthermore, leaders must carefully assess victory and survivability. George observes, “When facing the early stages of a crisis, it is essential not to declare victory too soon. Prudent leaders recognize that survivability is their most important goal” (p. 72).

5. Never Waste a Good Crisis – Crises are more than gargantuan problems. There is actually opportunity in crises to transform the organization for the good. Crises are extraordinarily valuable learning experiences. Leaders must learn from the crisis and leverage it to advance the organization. Bill George observes, “Leaders who don’t take advantage of crises to make long-term changes not only waste their opportunities but sow the seeds for a repeat experience” (p. 86).

6.  You’re in the Spotlight: Follow True North – When crises hit, the spotlight shines bright on the leader and the organization. George says, “In a crisis, everything is amplified one hundredfold” (p. 89). Leaders cannot hide the truth. They are under the microscope and and attempt to be dishonest will only worsen the situation. Transparency and straightforwardness is critical. Communication and accessibility is absolute crucial. George advises: “When you are open, you are in a better position to ask people for their support. If things get worse, as they often do, people are more sympathetic to your point of view if you have kept them fully informed. During this time, you should be highly accessible within your organization, wandering around the offices and labs, visiting factories, and participating in events around the company” (p. 92). Do not isolate yourself in crisis. Model candor so you can create a culture of candor. George observes that the truth will eventually come out and that a leader must, “get out in front of the crisis in its first hours with clear statements, both internally and externally, that accept responsibility and build confidence and credibility with all your constituents” (p. 102). Crises are not the time to abandon true north. Live your values privately and publicly.

7.  Go on Offense, Focus on Winning Now – Leaders cannot shrink into a hole during a crisis. Not only must they handle the crisis itself with clarity and wisdom, they must strategically leverage the crisis to reshape the market and win. Bill George recommends seven steps to focus on winning:

  • Rethink your industry strategy
  • Shed your weaknesses
  • Reshape the industry to play to your strengths
  • Make vital investments during the downturn
  • Keep key people focused on winning
  • Create your company’s image as the industry leader
  • Develop rigorous execution plans.

As a new market emerges, leaders focus on what they can do to win in their new reality. Leaders must be “aggressive and courageous in turning the challenges to their advantage” (p. 119).

A crisis may be your defining moment as a leader. What you do with it is absolutely critical to your future success. Leaders must carefully and strategically face crises, navigate crises, and leverage crises to advance the organization. George’s seven lessons give you the roadmap to do just that.

Questions: Which lesson is the biggest “aha” for you? Which lesson is most easily ignored?