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).