How to be a Leader, Not a Manager, in Times of Crisis

Jake Wilder
Mar 21, 2020 · 10 min read

We Don’t Need More People Focused on Managing the Problem. We Need People Ready to Lead Us Through It.

Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

“Visions and strategies are not formulated by individuals who have learned only to deal with plans and budgets,” wrote John Kotter in describing a key difference between leaders and managers. Managers, that group raised to preserve today’s system, are ill equipped to adapt when that system is suddenly threatened. Decisive action is rarely built from a career of maintaining the status quo.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in times of crisis. We often talk about managing a crisis or managing a situation. But management’s go-to tools — executing plans and measuring progress — fall short when there’s no plan to manage. Managing a problem within the existing system stops working when events make that system insufficient.

In the face of these challenges, management becomes overwhelmed. We get inaction. We get a lot of people looking to others for precedence and direction. But everyone else is doing the same. And as a result, we get costly delays.

As the initial news out of China and Italy became more dramatic, countries and companies all failed to quickly respond. Looking for cues from other governments and other industries, too many defaulted to inaction and a business-as-usual facade. And the corresponding delays further hindered our ability for containment and worsened the entire situation.

Instead of managers trying to manage the situation, we needed leaders to lead people through it.

Because that’s what leaders do. They lead people. We may manage organizations. But we lead people. We may manage programs. But we lead people. And if we expect for people to follow that leadership — especially in a crisis — it needs to focus on the following areas.

“To lead people, walk beside them.” — Lao-Tsu

The morning of September 11, 2001 is one of those moments where everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing. As a college sophomore, I’ll never forget watching the planes crash into the World Trade Center and going through the next days in a haze. People were afraid. They were angry. Everyone was uncertain about what would happen next.

In the immediate aftermath, President George W. Bush was the leader that the country needed him to be. Within four days, he was on-site at Ground Zero. He spent time with the rescue workers. He listened to their stories. He showed his appreciation to the people working there.

As he talking with a crowd, someone yelled that they couldn’t hear him. Bush told everyone, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

Less than four years later, President Bush faced another crisis — Hurricane Katrina. But while his boots-on-the-ground response to 9/11 showed compassion and connection, his actions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina showed the opposite. Instead of visiting the city, he flew over New Orleans on his way from Texas to Washington. The image of him looking down on the wreckage through one of Air Force One’s windows show a clear lack of empathy.

The Japanese term genchi gembutsu translates into “go and see for yourself.” And in times of crisis, we fully expect our leaders to be on the ground, understanding the situation and contributing to a solution. It develops credibility and emphasizes that through everything, you value the people who are living with the issue above all else.

Who is going through the toughest time? Who’s been most impacted by the events of the past month? And what are you doing to make that connection? As the old saying goes, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

“Leaders are dealers in hope.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

In times of crisis, people will naturally be worried about their safety and security much more than the company’s bottom line. And before they’ll follow a leader, they need to see these priorities reflected in a leader’s communication.

Many managers assume that given the vast amount of information available, their people are already informed. Which may be true. But just as likely isn’t.

How often do companies stay silent, waiting until they have the full picture before saying anything? Or their bureaucratic delays result in communications that are obsolete upon issue?

In times of crisis, as information changes frequently, speed and transparency take priority. People need to see you establish the facts up front, regardless of how much you think they already know. Few things build trust like a commitment to transparency and clarity.

It also separates fact from speculation, limits the rumor mill, and aligns everyone to the proper baseline. Just as important, since any solution will include assumptions based on these facts, it ensures that you’re at least starting from a place of credibility.

The question should rarely be whether to share information, but how. Recognize the concerns that people have and make sure you’re giving them information relevant to those areas. Communicate your company policies as well as the reasoning behind them. Consider the problems and issues that are expected to come up — health benefits, child care, travel restrictions — and make sure people have this information in advance.

My general rule is over-communicate to the point that people start rolling their eyes. Then you know you’ve hit the right amount.

“Nothing predicts future behavior as much as past impunity.” — Carol Tavris, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

When the American steel industry began to struggle in the 1980s, the CEO of Bethlehem Steel was quick to blame the cheap imports that were undercutting their business. As he said in 1983, “Our first, second, and third problems are imports.”

Another steel company, Nucor, took a different approach. Their CEO, Ken Iverson, said the challenge was a blessing. He advocated that the industry’s problems weren’t due to imports, but the poor management practices that pervaded their companies. And this created an opportunity to address those inefficiencies that were holding them back.

Iverson’s perspective is something that Jim Collins describes in Good to Great as “the window and the mirror.” Leaders look out the window to give credit to others when things go well. Yet when things go poorly, they look in the mirror — taking full responsibility and never blaming others.

Because of Iverson’s outlook and ownership, Nucor came through these struggles a stronger company while Bethlehem Steel’s lack of reflection helped further its path into bankruptcy.

In times of crisis, people need to feel that their leader is in control. While career managers are willing to play politics and deflect blame, leaders look in the mirror and take responsibility for the situation.

Whether the current crisis was caused by you or not is, at this very moment, completely irrelevant. Maybe it was unavoidable. Or maybe your actions to cut response funding, surround yourself with subpar advisors, and downplay concern for weeks exacerbated the entire problem. Either way, a real leader takes responsibility of the situation.

Taking responsibility makes things actionable. And people need to see that a leader is in control. This doesn’t mean that they’re in control of the entire problem. But it does mean that they’re in control of their response.

People become overwhelmed when they struggle to differentiate between what they can control and what they can’t. And when people are overwhelmed, they default to inaction. Looking in the mirror and taking ownership for what you can control is the critical step in moving from overwhelm to purposeful action.

Improving management practices was well within Iverson and Nucor’s lotus of control. Limiting cheap imports was not. Because of their willingness to look in the mirror, they were able to take focused action and come through the crisis.

It’s not in every leader’s capacity to develop a life-saving vaccine. But every leader can do what it takes to keep their people safe. Every leader can control how their company supports efforts to contain and mitigate contamination. Take ownership. And focus on what you can control. As Seneca put it, “Fate guides the willing but drags the unwilling.”

“Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt

In the summer of 1963, a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington, D.C. and heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. He led people through a statement of purpose, founded on his principles for a better future. He didn’t start out by walking people through the details of a twelve-point plan. I’m sure he had one. But he knew that people need to buy into the leader before they buy into the plan. And people buy into a leader through her principles.

Too often people jump immediately into details of a plan without describing the principles that govern their thinking. But clarifying the principles, the underlying reason for your decisions, builds trust. It helps people see that as the situation evolves, your plan may change, but the principles will remain consistent.

Outlining principles also clarifies priorities. It lets you make one major decision instead of a thousand small ones. When seven people died of poisoned Tylenol in 1982, Johnson & Johnson had an immediate crisis. What was their priority? Should they recall all product to ensure the safety of their customers? Was their first duty to use some of those funds to console the affected families? Or should they protect their shareholders and focus on a public relations campaign?

With 35% of the market, Tylenol their most profitable product, and clear evidence that the affected bottles were not a result of company malpractice, this wouldn’t have been an easy decision.

Fortunately, Johnson & Johnson has a Credo: a code originally written in 1943 by chairman Robert Wood Johnson that is literally carved in stone at the company’s headquarters. It begins with the promise that first priority will always be to customers:

“We believe our first responsibility is to the patients, doctors and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality.”

Johnson & Johnson quickly performed a nationwide recall of Tylenol, estimated to cost $100 million. And while at the time of the scare, the company’s market share collapsed to 8%, it rebounded within a year — a feat credited to the company’s prompt response and demonstrated commitment to their principles.

It’s easy to embrace quality and excellence when everything is going well. But when we’re in the throes of a crisis, those principles come under fire. Do we continue to do what’s right, even when it’s difficult? Do we continue to prioritize the health and safety of our people when there’s pressure to deliver as usual? It’s how we respond in these times of adversity that demonstrate our true values.

What are your guiding principles? And which course of action best aligns to them? Those simple questions can clarify the toughest decisions.

“The unexpected always happens — the unexpected is indeed the only thing one can confidently expect. And almost never is it a pleasant surprise.” — Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

Every crisis represents a series of conjunctive events. Let’s assume your plan to come through it has 100 different variables, all of which include a high probability (>95%) of success. You’re likely feeling rather confident that things will go well.

Yet the likelihood that all of these variables will work out in your favor is less than 1%. And with more variables or a lower probability, the likelihood of success continues to drop even further.

We rarely know where the problem will occur or which event will fail to happen as planned. But chances are that it will happen somewhere. And we ignore this probability at our peril. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking, Fast and Slow,

“There are many ways for any plan to fail, and although most of them are too improbable to be anticipated, the likelihood that something will go wrong in a big project is high.”

The hallmark of a crisis is that it changes quickly and things rarely go as planned. Our first response is unlikely to be our final one. As this happens, we can’t commit to only one strategy. A leader needs to take in new information, consult with experts, and understand how this affects the current strategy and plans.

Many managers want to write up and issue a formal plan. It’s reassuring to have every detail written down and anchored in place. It gives everyone the feeling that things are in control.

But this is only an illusion. Instead of securing control, it overly anchors people to a finite path. Management worries that people will see them as indecisive if they change plans too frequently. So they bias themselves towards holding the course when a pivot is needed.

Instead, crises call for a living document — one that we can update with new information and adapt as the situation changes. This reminds people that we don’t currently have all the answers. We don’t have a perfect map. But we’re prepared to deal with those surprises — whatever form they take — that will eventually come up.

“Peacetime CEO sets big, hairy, audacious goals. Wartime CEO is too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand.” — Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things

To be a leader is to be someone who leads people. There’s no such thing as a designer that doesn’t design. Or a shoemaker that doesn’t make shoes.

And in times of crisis, the true measure of a leader is tested. We don’t need people quoting management philosophies, we need people ready to roll up their sleeves and lead through it. We need leaders who can reassure others, make connections, drive people to a unique solution, and adapt within the changing environment.

We need less people worried about managing the problem and more ready to lead people through it. Which one do you want to be?

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Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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