Leadership in Times of Crisis
Everyone was looking at me. “Sir, what do you want us to do?” I just learned that dozens (possibly more than 100) of Air Force civilians were being told – due to a long-ago misinterpretation of a regulation – they were receiving money they were not entitled to receive. A legal decision in Washington DC just overturned a policy that my organization was following for decades and required that the monies be repaid. As a result, some of these civilians were being told they “owed” tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and they’d done nothing wrong. The organization’s mistake was affecting them in a terrifying way.
When you’re the person that everyone’s staring at… waiting for answers or solutions… the pressure is intense and singularly focused. I faced it multiple times in my Air Force career and later as the Aviation Director for the City of San Antonio. As I reflected upon those crises to write this post I found I had utilized principles that served me well in every situation.
1) Maintain your composure and keep your emotions in check. When people around you are losing their cool you’ve got to keep yours. Your organization will mirror your demeanor and if you’re agitated and screaming (I’ve seen that happen) you’ll only amplify the uncertainty and turbulence that immediately follows the emergence of a crisis. Regardless of how bad the situation was (aircraft accident, fatality, act of terrorism, massive budget shortfalls) I was determined to project a calm demeanor and forced my staff to follow my lead. Once people calmed down we could begin the hard business of figuring out the best way ahead. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t inwardly ruffled or flustered, but I tried never to show that to the organization.
2) Communicate up and down your “chain of command”. Your organization will benefit from hearing your thoughts on the crisis in question. Do it compassionately and in person if at all possible. If you don’t tell them what’s happening they’ll be subjected to opinions and speculation; those are rarely accurate. You should also be talking to those “up the chain” who are watching and asking, “What are you going to do?" In the incident cited above I hosted a meeting with all of the affected civilians and their supervisors and laid out exactly what happened, what I intended to do, and promised them my full support. I also back-briefed and enlisted the support of the Commander, US Army Europe (his workers were also affected), senior executives from the Defense Finance & Accounting Service, the Air Force Chief of Staff and the Judge Advocate General. Over the next year we continued meeting with our workforce and found a solution that resulted in a satisfactory outcome for all.
3) Be decisive and move forward. It’s easy to become paralyzed in a quest for more information. The very definition of a crisis includes a demand for action before any resolution can come about. Leaders are generally placed in position as a result of past proven competence and sound judgment. You’ll never have 100% of the information. Trust yourself and have the courage to make a decision that allows the organization to move forward and begin getting “back to normal”.
4) If there’s fault to be had – own it. I’m impressed by leaders who acknowledge responsibility rather than hide from it… so are organizations. The civilians in the example above were furious at being portrayed as somehow being complicit in a bad interpretation of a regulation. We sent them a poorly worded document which made it appear the responsibility was solely theirs to correct the problem – we couldn’t have offended them more if we’d tried. Once we apologized and started talking to them individually we were able to forge a way ahead that satisfied them.
5) Manage Expectations. It’s a natural reaction to tell everyone, “It’s going to be OK,” as a means of tamping down the uncertainty and alarm. I tried not to say that during a crisis unless I was confident I was right. Your organization should know what the problem is, what you’re doing to address the problem, and what is your desired outcome. Some crises are not going to end with a positive outcome; your workforce and your superiors are listening to every word you say. Be cautious about promising a happy ending that might not be achievable.
No doubt about it… leadership is hard. Being a great leader in times of crisis is even harder. Hopefully the thoughts above will help you take your organization through the next crisis… whatever that is!
Honez retired after more than 35 years in service and over 3,600 flying hours in various fighter jet models. His last assignment was the Vice Commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe/Air Forces Africa stationed in Ramstein, Germany.
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