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Executive Leadership: Leading In Times of Crisis
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Executive Leadership: Leading In Times of Crisis - Executive Leadership Articles

Executive Leadership: Leading In Times of Crisis

Executive Leadership Articles

Executive Leadership: Leading In Times of Crisis

In professional athletics, it's seldom the coach with the all-star-laden team who wins the end-of-season coach of the year awards. Although it certainly takes a considerable amount of coaching skill to drive a Corvette successfully from the preseason through the post-season, voters are more impressed by the coach who guides an economy station wagon from out of nowhere into some kind of unexpected success. Occasionally, as with the 2012 Indianapolis Colts, it is the coach who leads a team through a major crisis who earns this recognition. One month into the 2012 NFL season, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with a form of leukemia and took an indefinite leave from the team. His interim replacement, Bruce Arians, took the emotionally rattled team to a nine-win, three-loss remainder of the season, earning him NFL Coach of the Year honors and eventually, upon Pagano's return to the team, his own head coaching position with the Arizona Cardinals.

Leadership is difficult no matter what state your organization is in, but it's in times of crisis that the magnifying glass seems to be at full strength. Little inconveniences and setbacks when things are great are merely irritants. Those same setbacks in times of crises can be enormous, seemingly crucial enough to doom a struggling company to failure. Yet good leadership is good leadership: responsive to the needs of those who follow, absorbing blows from critics, deflecting praise to others, and communicating effectively every step of the way. Leadership in times of crisis doesn't mean a different skillset; it simply means leaning more on certain skills and sometimes prioritizing differently.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Bill George reminds us in the midst of crisis, no matter how bad things are, they will get worse. The leader who accepts this reality is ready to respond to bad news, rather than to gloss over it or merely ride it out. "It is far better for leaders to anticipate the worst and get out in front of it," he writes. If today's bad news is only an indicator of worse news later, an executive can address today's news proactively, with an eye on how bad things might eventually get.

"Structure for success" is the mantra of many an educator who inherits a student with multiple learning issues. While others look for someone to blame or to assume responsibility, the good teacher identifies small, reachable victories that can lead to larger victories over the long haul. Similarly, in times of crisis, a leader may have a few big fixes in mind, but he or she might also "build traction for change with quick wins," as suggested by Doug Yokola for McKinsey.com. Small moves can make a difference on the bottom line, he writes, but they also have a positive influence within the organization, as employees are more likely to support a leader who makes observable changes and takes "real action."

In a US News article, Brett Schulte reminds us of the 1982 Tylenol case, where cyanide-laced capsules claimed several lives in the Chicago area. The poisoned capsules were the malicious acts of one person not at all connected to Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, but once the poison was linked to the painkiller, Johnson & Johnson recalled 31 million bottles nationwide, introduced tamper-proof packaging, and reintroduced its product in "caplet" form. Rather than deflect blame or ride out the wave of fear that swept the country, the company took the lead in preventing further catastrophe. Schulte writes, "Within a year, Tylenol had regained more than 80 percent of its market share. Much of the credit goes to (Johnson & Johnson CEO James) Burke and his management team, which decided to stick by the company's core values of putting the customer first—even if it cost Johnson & Johnson dearly."

In a culture that looks ever for a scapegoat, it is usually not the finger-pointer who endures. Like the men and women in the firehouse on the corner, a leader's job much of the time is to be ready, but you earn your paycheck for the way you respond when the bell starts ringing. Just as there is no one way to lead effectively, and just as conventional wisdom tends much of the time to be wrong, there are no hard-and-fast rules about crisis leadership, but a lot of what works begins with the same few concepts, in good times and bad: be prepared, be responsive, and be available.

Wall Street Journal: http://guides.wsj.com/management/developing-a-leadership-style/how-to-lead-in-a-crisis/
McKinsey: http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/corporate_finance/ten_tips_for_leading_companies_out_of_crisis
US News: http://www.usnews.com/news/best-leaders/articles/2009/11/24/crisis-management-leading-successfully-through-the-storm


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