Leading in Crisis


On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Northern Japan. It lasted an incredibly, long six minutes and created a powerful tsunami that soon pounded Japan’s northeast coast, causing widespread death and destruction. The tsunami also triggered a nuclear meltdown and the release of radioactive materials at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Literally, hundreds more earthquakes would follow in the coming days— along with threats of additional tsunamis, and the potential escalation of the ongoing nuclear catastrophe.

I commanded Misawa Air Base at the time and, as the leader of a community of 10,000 Americans residing in Northern Japan, I had a full-blown crisis on my hands. This crisis and several others taught me hard lessons about leading in difficult times. No matter what your calamity might be—a natural disaster, a defective product, a public scandal, workplace violence, or just a very wicked problem—the four lessons below can help you lead your team through their next crisis.

Remain Calm and Keep a Positive Outlook.

In crisis, far more than usual, the leader’s emotional energy is infectious. Remain calm, cool and collected and that energy ripples through the team in a good way (the opposite, is of course, true too). Successful leaders maintain faith in an eventual positive outcome as they navigate a crisis. They acknowledge the hard realities and tackle the proverbial elephants in the room head-on. However, the leader’s steadfast confidence in the organization’s ability to eventually prevail provides critical fuel for the team.

Communicate More, Communicate More Often.

When a crisis hits, the natural tendency can be for communication to slow down. Everyone is busy reacting to dynamic situations, analyzing options, and problem-solving. These activities compete with active communication, which takes time and energy. Savvy leaders fight through this friction and understand a primary line of their effort must be robust and repeated communication—to their bosses, to their team, to customers, stakeholders, and the media as appropriate. They lean forward to share as much pertinent information as possible but account for the fact that early information in a crisis is often wrong, or at least not fully correct.

Do the Right Thing.

A well-known quote reminds us, “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” In a crisis, where the stakes are high, it can be all the more tempting for leaders and organizations to take ethical shortcuts or sacrifice their values. There is, of course, never a good time to take ethical shortcuts, but a crisis is arguably the worst time. The message this sends is not so much “The leader screwed up” but rather, “We never really believed in our organizational values in the first place.” Transgressions in crisis have especially long-lasting second and third-order effects.

Creatively Re-align Resources.

Almost by definition, a crisis is a problem that our organization was not designed to handle. Therefore, the leader needs to consider all the resources at their disposal and how they might creatively re-purpose those resources to bring them to bear against the challenges at hand. Those resources might be manpower, brainpower, money, equipment, time, authorities, or a myriad of other things. However, if you are not doing some re-purposing, re-prioritizing and re-aligning, then you are likely sub-optimizing your crisis response.

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