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Three keys to leading through crisis

by Dave Anderson

"It is nearly impossible to remain both aloof and effective." ~ George S. Patton

Dave AndersonPatton was right, and he walked his talk. In nine months and eight days his Third Army went farther, faster than any other army in history. Leaders today could learn from his example of staying visible, accessible and engaged during crisis.

Unfortunately, crisis often drives leaders behind closed doors instead of out to the trenches. They withdraw to their desk, get dazed by data, numbed by numbers and lose connection with their people, abandoning three key tenets of crisis leadership:

1. Stay engaged and lead from the front
In times of crisis, no news is not good news. Communicate constantly with your people. Tell the truth. Lead from the trenches and not from the rear, or worse, from your rear, polishing a chair with your behind whilst you wait for the storm to pass. 

The more time you spend at the front problem predicting, the fewer problems you'll have to solve. Shift your focus from charting results to charting the course. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani exhaustively pounded the streets modeling visibility and accessibility while he consoled, encouraged, listened, communicated, planned and executed strategy for rescue and cleanup. He attended more than 100 funerals, held daily briefings and consulted incessantly with others. He did not sequester himself in his office, reading reports, pondering budgets and digesting second-hand information.

Winston Churchill modeled engagement at the front during the blitzkrieg against London in 1940 by refusing to leave the city for Ireland or Canada, as was recommended. He lived in an underground bunker and resurfaced after raids to walk the streets, encourage, console and preach his message of inevitable victory. 

Another example of engagement during crisis occurred July 2, 1864 as the Confederate army approached Ft. Stevens in Silver Spring, Md., closing in on Washington, D.C. A high-ranking Union officer climbed the fort's parapet to personally survey the situation and came under fire from rebel snipers. 

This Union officer, was the commander-in-chief, President Abraham Lincoln who had left the safety of the White House and turned down offers to be whisked to the safety of Baltimore, opting to join his troops at the front, observe, encourage and chart the course. 

Lincoln had a track record of staying engaged and leading from the front. In prior years he visited several generals on battlefields: McClellan at Antietam, Hooker at Charlottesville and Burnside at Fredericksburg. The Confederate's advance toward Washington ended that day at Ft. Stevens.

Too many leaders dig deeper in their foxholes after crisis hits. They develop a bunker mentality and start playing not-to-lose instead of playing to win. This strategy ensures loss. In business, these leaders isolate themselves in their office trying to turn the numbers around when they should get out front and help turn the people around so the people can turn the numbers around.

2. Point to the big picture and communicate the vision
In times of crisis, leaders face the brutal facts of reality but never lose unwavering faith that they and their people will prevail. Giuliani never minimized the damage after Sept. 11, but at the same time maintained and conveyed uncompromising faith that New York and New Yorkers would triumph and emerge stronger than ever. 

Churchill did the same by repeating the vision of victory so clearly an entire nation became believers even while being pummeled by a Nazi army bent on their destruction and preparing a land invasion to finish them off. 

Lincoln's vision was crystal clear: preservation of the Union. And anyone doubting his resolve has only to look at the 600,000 casualties on both sides as testament to his determination.

Vision-driven organizations always have an advantage over their vision-less counterparts but when crisis hits, vision creates an insanely unfair advantage. Vision provides a big picture people can borrow inspiration from to get through the present trials and setbacks. 

In fact, working in a vision-less state is like trying to assemble a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle without being able to refer to the big picture. With no bigger picture-no vision-to keep you focused, inspired and persistent, your chore would quickly lose its meaning and you'd lose all motivation to continue. The same holds true when one becomes so overwhelmed by the pressures of the proximate. 

Without a larger sense of perspective, sense of meaning and sense of direction out of the abyss, people are immobilized and succumb to inertia. As the proverb writer penned, "Without vision, the people perish."

3. Seek wise counsel and use your team
In John Maxwell's book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership, his Law of the Inner Circle says those closet to the leader determines the leader's success. This is never so true as in crisis. It's at this time leaders need a team who can offer wise counsel, face and tell the truth; a team that challenges each other, engages in debate without coercion, conducts autopsies without blame and unites behind decisions once they are made. 

We can learn from Colin Powell who said:
"When we are debating an issue, being loyal to me means giving me your opinion whether you think I'll like it or not. At this point, disagreement stimulates me. But after the decision has been made, the debate ends. At this point being loyal means getting behind and executing the decision as if it were your own."

In crisis, a team of leaders with a balance of complementary skills and talents can move more quickly and effectively. This is where having developed capable, lateral leaders at all levels in your organization pays big dividends and often means the difference between survival and extinction. 

In fact, a hierarchy is the worst possible model in crisis and the organizations burdened by one will fail. The key is to be proactive and build your dream team before disaster hits. Why? Because tough times won't create leaders. They show you what kind of leaders you already have.

Dave Anderson is the author of No-Nonsense Leadership: Real World Strategies to Maximize Personal and Corporate Potential.  He is a peak performance author, trainer and speaker for leadership and sales. For more information go to:, or call 650-941-1493.



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