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Leading in Times of Crisis and the Lessons for Everyday Leadership

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Leadership is Awesome

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

You would be forgiven, based on the overworked cliches shared by some of the mainstream leadership literature that leaders in business permanently operate in a peacetime environment. I can hear the theme song from the first Lego Movie, "Everything is awesome" playing in my head as I read yet another list shared by a modern leadership guru: leaders do this, engaged teams do this, be the leader you wish to follow etc etc etc. Rinse and repeat...

Other than the non-actionable ideas, the advice that is being shared, in the main, is good. Who wouldn't want to be in the position to think, reflect, ask for opinions, remove obstacles, provide resources for their team and treat every opportunity as a learning one? The reality is that leadership isn't always "awesome" and leaders in business have a much more challenging job than the overly simplistic picture painted by an inspirational leadership quote or motivational leadership checklist.

Leadership Shortcuts

There are no shortcuts or hacks, leadership is about turning up and consistently doing the right things in the good times but especially in the bad times. Bad times??? Yes, contrary to these leadership platitudes the really important stuff often happens when everything isn't going according to plan. Leadership in a crisis, or as I have written about before leadership in wartime scenarios. Mainstream leadership literature, typically without acknowledging it, is describing the peacetime where the focus is on a longer-term time horizon, on learning and developing talent. But that is only one half of the two by two matrix:

Situational leadership

Challenges for Leaders in Business

Leaders in business are operating in an environment where things are changing faster, increasingly so, different kinds of things are changing in different ways, business is playing an infinite game where the rules are continuously evolving. The management acronym VUCA, does a good job of summarising the reality. Business is:

  • Volatile, increasingly so, unexpected events

  • Uncertain, unclear and incomplete information

  • Complex, many connected parts and variables

  • Ambiguous, lack of clarity, lack of precedents

This is much more consistent with the reality that I experienced throughout the first half of my career at top-tier professional and financial services firms. This means that we're likely to experience a more typical environment where the focus is on the shorter-term and getting tasks done. For the avoidance of doubt, I agree with most of the actionable advice being shared by the modern leadership gurus, but it is only one-half of the story for modern-day leaders in business. So, by all means, do everything that they are saying, in fact, I encourage you to do so but appreciate it isn't always appropriate as leadership is context-specific and situational - if there is a fire you bark orders to get the people to safety, there is no time for democracy or diplomacy, lives are at stake (we are firmly in the bottom left quadrant on the matrix).

A Career of Crises

Reflecting back on my career, I have lived through a number of major company-specific and broader economic events, learning lessons from each and adapting to survive and ultimately to have a successful career. The five career-changing wartime events that really stand out for me are:

  • Accounting fraud and bankruptcy - Enron 2001

  • Financial crisis - 2008 to 2012

  • Geopolitical sovereign debt and Grexit - 2013 to 2015

  • Market-wide collapse in revenues - Fixed Income to 2015

  • Geopolitical Brexit - 2016 to present day

Each of these events had a personal and professional impact on me. But it has actually been these wartime situations, where the time horizon has been the here and now, that the most valuable career lessons have been. The experiences gained from working with different leaders and teams of talented professionals during the difficult times have helped differentiate me as the manager, leader, mentor and coach that I am today. By using these experiences and lessons learned I have changed my behaviours and mindset as well as to develop the skills and capabilities to face the everyday VUCA business environment.

Lessons for Everyday Leadership

Here are some of my lessons from leading in times of crisis and how to apply them to everyday leadership:

Get the basics right

There will always be many high priorities and competing demands on your time but what is your number one priority? What is the oxygen that your team or business breathes? Reducing expenses, optimising scarce resources, engagement and culture initiatives, improving diversity are all examples of important initiatives that should be focused on, but they are the food and drink not the oxygen for a business (you can last for days or weeks without food or drink).

Revenue is the oxygen we breathe, without oxygen we die within minutes

In the peacetime as demands for your time and attention grow from multiple sources it is easy to get distracted and focus on too many things. Taking care of your clients and treating them as your number one priority will generate revenue and it is revenue that pays for all the other high priorities.

Communicate effectively

I have written on this topic before, I have seen countless hardworking, diligent and highly credible professionals not maximise their impact because of mediocre communication skills. The most admired and impactful corporate leaders don’t get as good at public speaking as they are without a considerable investment of time and effort.

It is critical to be an effective communicator during a crisis to make sure the messages and instructions are understood and unambiguous. Take the opportunity in your everyday leadership role to improve your public speaking skills which will enhance your ability to influence and motivate others. Here is an interesting article on how mastering dialogue in crucial moments has a disproportionate effect on your leadership and the broader organisation performance.

Listen to understand and not respond. How can you take in critical information if you are constantly working out the best way to respond to what is being said? I have previously written about the 3 levels of listening - successfully navigating through a crisis demands level 2 and 3 listening so we pick up much useful information as possible.

Control your boundaries

In a crisis, there is no time for anything other than the most important actions to take place. Ruthless prioritisation is required to ensure the focus remains on the right tasks getting completed on time. The discipline and prioritisation that takes place in a crisis can be carried over into day to day leadership to ensure our scarce time and attention is focused on the most important things albeit with a longer-term time horizon.

I have written about the importance of time previously. The four critical points that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett make regarding your time.

  1. “You control your time”

  2. “Sitting and thinking maybe much higher priority than a normal CEO thinks”

  3. “Not a proxy for your seriousness that you filled every minute in your schedule”

  4. “I cannot buy time and therefore I had better be careful with it”

Build relationships strategically

It becomes apparent very quickly in a crisis, large or small, that it is not possible to go it alone. The value of an effective team and a strong network will allow you to draw upon diverse and varied resources to solve the adaptive challenges that arise. The modern business world, as summed up by VUCA, is full of challenges that are hard to identify, that cannot simply be solved by the application of technical expertise and so gone are the days where the "great man leadership theory" is enough to succeed. Paraphrasing from the classic book “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi:

“To achieve your goals, it matters less how smart you are or how much innate talent you’re born with. These things are important, but they mean little if you don’t understand one thing. You can’t get there alone. In fact, you can’t get very far at all.”

Therefore, play the infinite game, the long game and approach every new relationship to educate and learn. Education leads to improved possibility of a series of win/win outcomes. The starting assumption should be this is not going to be a one-off interaction but rather the start of a longer-term relationship and hopefully partnership.

Make decisions

The more senior you get the more you have to get used to making decisions based on incomplete and imperfect information. Making decisions under pressure and with incomplete information is an important skill that leaders need to be comfortable doing. As business is increasingly fast-moving and complex it is unrealistic to expect to have all the answers to every question before deciding to move forward. Analysis paralysis or kicking a decision down the road to avoid making tough calls is a common mistake. These decisions will often come back and require resolution at inopportune times and can then lead to suboptimal decisions getting made. A useful question I ask myself and my coaching clients is

"What do I know today that I will find out in a year's time?"

The time horizon can be as short as you wish. The question acts as a prompt to confront the reality faced and come to a decision. You can always pivot or change direction if/when more information comes to light in the future.


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