Seven habits of leaders in crisis

'Crisis doesn't change leaders – it merely reinforces who they are'

Seven habits of leaders in crisis

On an autumn September morning in Mrs. Sandra Kay Daniel’s second grade classroom, students’ took turns reading “The Pet Goat” aloud. Parents, local dignitaries, press corps and the President of the United States listened and smiled, while the secret service looked on stoically.

Just after 9am, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card walked into the room and whispered in President George Bush’s ear. "A second plane hit the second (World Trade Center) tower. America is under attack.” Over the next 10 minutes, President Bush, preoccupied with what he had just learned, listened to the students, took pictures and talked to parents before leaving the room.

Awaiting the President next door was a makeshift situation room that had already established communication with national and world leaders. The President walked in, sat down and took the phone in one ear while getting briefed from staff in the other.

When leaders come face-to-face with crisis, the dynamic it generates is revealing. In practical terms, crisis doesn't change leaders; it merely reinforces who they are. As Maya Angelou suggested, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Go-to responses leaders use to lean in, freeze up or fade away in the midst of crisis are baked into their leadership muscle memory. Notwithstanding nuances played out in unique circumstances (e.g., enterprise-wide digital transformation or national government policy reform), the core of leadership is largely etched in semi-dried stone. Incompetence rarely evolves into capability nor will decisive leaders deteriorate into indecision.

To game out how leaders are likely to respond to crisis in the future is to consider what guides their behavior today. The decision to lead this way or that is embedded in well-established habits of leadership. And, what underpins the habits of leaders is purpose.

READ MORE: 5 tips to help you lead and experiment during a crisis

A hard habit to break
While leaders may differ widely in their approach to crisis, a leader’s purpose is the foundation on which crisis outcomes are achieved. Purpose is defined as a deeply held commitment that motivates habitual routine necessary to achieve an objective. In practice, leaders routinely display habits of leadership that are guided by purpose.

Purposeful leaders are profoundly deliberate and their commitment to achievement obvious. When applying purpose to crisis, good leaders align habits and resources into positions of greatest need to achieve an objective.

Great leaders, in contrast, exercise consistent habits of leadership that motivate others to achieve a common purpose so compelling that it becomes their own. As people, teams and organisations align themselves to the purpose, the habits of leaders in crisis become synonymous with the habits of others. The outcome achieved evolves from an objective for all.   

Five plus two equals seven
There isn’t likely to be one-size fits all when it comes to leading in crisis. There are, however, a set of leadership habits that are likely to have more success than others. Arguably, there are at least five habits of good leaders in crisis. Great leaders, having motivated and compelled others to align themselves to a common purpose, intuitively develop two additional leadership habits, which elevate them from good to great.

READ MORE: The most crucial leadership trait when handling crisis

Here are seven habits of leaders in crisis

  1. Deliberative decisiveness

Deliberative decisiveness is the process of combining thoughtful consideration of reasoned, weighted options with quality, prompt and conclusive decisioning. Purposeful leaders in crisis make decisions by actively listening, thinking aloud and fulsome discussion with a core group that includes expertise, ideas and experience that is both counter, but also complimentary to their own.

The habits leaders’ employ to make decisions that are inclusive of deliberations from a broad coalition are more likely to have greater take up, impact and longevity than lone declarations regardless of individual knowledge, expertise or standing.

  1. Communicate objective truth

Communicating objective truth is the practice of conveying information without judgment, subjectivity or influence resulting from emotion, perception or imagination. Purposeful leaders in crisis thread an independent, neutral needle and resist the convenience of alternative facts that could threaten their credibility and objective messaging.

Leaders’ truth-telling habits far outweigh incremental shades of grey;  the resilience of individuals, teams and organisations to accept hard truths and gain the trust of the messenger go a long way to taking on the challenges ahead.

  1. Problem-solving mindset

A problem-solving mindset seeks out challenges as an opportunity to test, learn and grow quickly now rather than being limited or constrained by obstacles in the future. Purposeful leaders in crisis ask, “how can we solve this problem” rather than “can this problem be solved” as a way of opening up the possibilities of everything instead of limiting what can possibly be done.

Leaders exhibit problem-solving mindset habits by continuously asking questions, listening intently and then asking more questions.

  1. Sharing authenticity

Sharing authenticity is a willingness to communicate openly, honestly and genuinely about thoughts, ideas and experiences in pursuit and maintenance of meaningful relationships. Purposeful leaders in crisis seek out opportunities to engage others often sharing their own stories first and then allowing others space to share in their own time and pace.

Laying a habitual foundation of authenticity revealed through sharing opens a window into understanding not only leadership core and purpose, but also as a means of building trust and confidence in each other.

  1. Owning failure

Owning failure is the practice of positive accountability that transforms mistakes into opportunities and encourages risk-taking to fail fast, build trust and learn again. Purposeful leaders in crisis take accountability for failure and at the same time, recognise the unique opportunity for learning and innovation that failure represents.

The habit of leaders to take open and transparent accountability offers the intended consequence of asking for feedback and in turn, offering trusted feedback to others.

  1. Selfless giving

Selfless giving is a conscious, intentional and intensely personal approach to giving of self, time and resource – without consideration or measure of return – that contributes significantly to the benefit of others.

Dalai Lama noted purposeful leaders in crisis realise “under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good both, for oneself and others.” Habits of selfless leaders find opportunities to give not what is important to themselves, but in ways that deeply benefit the lives of those around them.

  1. Success through others

Isaac Newton unassumingly explained that his ability to see further than others was not based solely on his own merits, but by standing on the shoulders of giants. Purposeful leaders in crisis rarely if ever stand alone; their commitment to the cause is infectious. Recognizing that the whole is far greater than the sum if its parts, leaders that display habits fostering distributive success find better outcomes quicker, with superior ease and broader ownership of shared achievement.

READ MORE: Four leadership blind spots (and how to avoid them)

Two case studies in real life consequences
On January 20th 2020, two allied countries reported their first known cases of COVID-19. By the 3rd of March, both countries had reported multiple deaths from the virus. South Korea, with a dense population of 51.64 million people, reported 28 deaths.

On the same day, the US, with a sprawling population of more than 331 million people, reported only 9 deaths. By mid-May, however, deaths in both countries had increased. South Korea reported 256 deaths while the US reported more than 80,000.

Now ask yourself…

How was deliberative decisiveness used to identify the scope and scale of the pandemic and leverage data, science, human resources and technology to limit the spread and contain the virus? Was objective truth communicated or did alternative facts threaten the credibility of the message? Where did a problem-solving mindset play its most critical role in determining how quickly obstacles were overcome?

Did leaders, by sharing openly, honestly and authentically, help in our understanding of their purpose and build trust? Have leaders taken accountability for their failures, if any, built trust and learned from their mistakes? To what degree have leaders given of themselves and contributed significantly to the benefit of others? How did the habits of leaders in crisis foster success through others and broad ownership of shared achievements?

Dr Wesley Payne McClendon is chief executive, thought leader and Executive Director, McClendon Research Group, Inc. Wesley was previously Chief Strategy and Transformation Executive and Board Director at Gooroo (ASX-GOO); Managing Director and Professor, Edinburgh Institute (UK and Hong Kong); Partner and UK Practice Leader, Mercer HR Consulting (London); and Principle and Melbourne Practice Leader, Ernst & Young (Australia). Dr McClendon is author of more than 25 articles and 2 books including “Strategy, People and Performance.” A third book, “Leadership, People and Culture Due Diligence in M&A, Integration and Restructure,” will be published later this year.


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