No one thinks much about this leadership quality – until the you-know-what hits the fan. It is crisis management. Thankfully, crises are rare occurrences. Korn Ferry’s research shows that three of the four qualities of great CEO are largely intuitive: sets vision and strategy; drives growth; and displays financial acumen. The fourth, which no one mentions, is managing crises. It is underappreciated, overlooked, and often not even one of the top requirements – until a crisis hits.

When the stock market was making all-time highs, only the rare few could have predicted universities would close, companies would tell employees to work from home en masse, and the NBA season would abruptly be suspended, followed by museums, cathedrals, and Broadway darkening.

While it is natural in uncertain times for people to turn to the leader for definitive answers, sometimes the authentic answer is “I do not know right now” – quickly followed by, “And here is what we are going to do.” In a crisis such as today, leaders need a Plan B – and a Plan C and Plan D as well.


Leaders always deal with ambiguity – it is timeless and comes with the job. During crisis, ambiguity becomes exponential. As fear becomes contagious across organizations, leaders must manage their own responses to ambiguity, by following six steps of leadership:

1. Anticipate – predicting what lies ahead.

2. Navigate – course correcting in real time.

3. Communicate – continually.

4. Listen – to what you do not want to hear.

5. Learn – learning from experience to apply in the future.

6. Lead – improve yourself to elevate others.


Start at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy

You first need to meet people where they are. Their most basic needs must be met first and they need to feel safe. Naturally, no one is interested in talking about the company’s strategic plan when they are out buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Once their essential needs are addressed, then the focus can shift to alignment, common purpose, elevating others and even opportunities for growth.


Earthquakes and aftershocks

In the same way, in a crisis, you need to anticipate the aftershocks – the unintended consequences of the initial shock to the system. Too often, people do not consider all the possibilities. Anticipation becomes a Monte Carlo simulation in action. For example, what if travel bans expand, commerce slows, or a liquidity crisis develops, etc? What is the impact on all aspects of my business? What are the implications for all stakeholders – employees, customers, and investors? Strategy is making a bet, and the skill of anticipating improves one’s odds.


Urgent vs. important

Day to day, leaders face a multitude of issues – both urgent and important. In the normal course of business, many leaders have difficulty distinguishing between the two. When a crisis hits, though, everything blurs as events and their implications constantly change. What is important often becomes urgent, and the urgent becomes critical. Leaders must delegate the urgent by empowering others to lead around a common purpose.


Leave no one behind

Leaders must connect with, motivate, and inspire others – and show genuine compassion. In the military, for example, leaders put the safety and well-being of others before themselves. I have met a number of military leaders who led during periods of conflict, and many have voluntarily told me, “I have never lost a soldier.’ This reveals a deep mindset of humility and accountability, rather than hubris and bravado.


Know what to do when you do not know what to do

There is nothing like a crisis or a complex problem to accelerate learning. This si learning agility to the “Nth” degree – applying past lessons to new and unfamiliar situations. It really is knowing what to do when you do not know what to do. In a crisis, this has never been more profound. Amid uncertainty, leaders need to be hyper-focused on past experiences and synthesize and apply them to real-time, fluid conditions. Clarity comes from finding a close comparison. It is like the Great Recession? The 1987 stock market crash? The outbreak of SARS or MERS? By running the “unknown” of the current crisis against the “known” of previous ones, leaders gain perspective, identify patterns, connect the dots, and determine appropriate and timely responses. The eventual recovery may be a V or a U or some other alphabet letter, but there will be a new normal – thanks, ultimately, to the scientists, innovators, and dreamers.


The natural inclination in a crisis may be to go into command-and-control. That is not leadership! It is creating a “bottom-up” culture of world-class observers to accurately perceive today in order to predict tomorrow.


Communicated by Korn Ferry

Publié le 09 juin 2020