‘As a tech leader you’re probably being tested now in ways you thought unlikely and almost unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

This is a crisis like no other. 

It is impacting on us in a way that will only truly unravel during the weeks, months and years to come. Not just with the business decisions you make but also in the impact it’s having on you and those around you.

The question now is how and where do you adapt in the short term and what crisis leadership skills are required to help you navigate, learn and grow out of this extraordinary period in our lives. Because great leaders and leadership skills emerge from adversity. 

It’s ‘easy street’ to lead when the times are good, when there’s fat in the business and in your budgets. You might have felt under pressure at certain moments and certain times in the past but looking back at those comfortable days now and in the face of such uncertainty now, there is nothing like a crisis to sharpen the mind and focus the senses. This is definitely the time when real leadership qualities emerge.

David Foster Wallace called real leaders people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Look around the world today at how different leaders are handling these events and you can see the skills and competences that make some leaders effective and others impotent (and incompetent).

How would FDR have handled this?

I’m an avid reader of history and in particular of how great leaders of the past negotiated emerged and negotiated incredibly challenging situations.

Sometimes the right individual arrives at the right time with exactly the right leadership qualities.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the only US president to be elected 3 times and thank goodness he was, because during his 12 year tenure he faced two of the greatest crisis the world has ever seen. 

He inherited the US presidency in the headwind of a great depression, the likes of which we had never seen then or since. 

He inspired first with his rhetoric including immortal phrases … “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and then took affirmative, radical action much of it in the face of fierce domestic opposition.

As the US economy was emerging from that catastrophe he was confronted with the second world war and even more fierce resistance from an isolationist nation about keeping the US out of the conflict.  

He took responsibility, acknowledged the issues and applied radical changes of thought and action to achieve the results required.

Three Pillars Of Crisis Management

These actions were pretty much taken from NYU Professor Scott Galloway and his three pillars of crisis management;

  1. Top person takes responsibility
  2. Acknowledge the issue
  3. Overcorrect

An example he gives of overcorrection being “the reason Johnson & Johnson is one of the most valuable companies in the world is in 1982 they didn’t say the poisoning of the Tylenol bottles in the Midwest was an isolated incident. They cleared all the shelves of Tylenol across North America. Was it an overreaction? Yes. Did it assure the health of the public and restore the credibility of the company? Yes and yes.  What’s difficult about overreacting is it’s disproportionate to the problem at present. It’s deeply uncomfortable, because you are devising a solution to a problem that doesn’t yet exist and whose future scale you are guessing. Throwing vast resources at a guess is risky and hard to justify, yet if you wait long enough for the scale to unfold, it will be too late”

Roosevelt applied all 3 pillars to both of his major crises.

How Might This Apply To You?

If your company is facing challenging headwinds then it’s your job as a business and tech leader to adapt a similar approach and at the very least provide clear communication and honesty to the team(s) you lead. 

You also need to combine confidence with realism.  There is often a risk with leaders of providing too much of the former, without sufficient amounts of the latter.  If leaders display excessive confidence in difficult circumstances, they can lose credibility very quickly. 

A much more effective strategy is to project confidence that you can find a way through these choppy waters but to be realistic about the resources needed and impact there is going to be on the ‘norm’.  We’re all having to cope with significant changes to the norm expected within our personal and professional lives. The human condition likes stability and certainty. The loss of both can be very unsettling.

Many of the team will be anxious about current circumstances and you need to provide humility and kindness, whatever else is going on within yours and their micro and macro environments. 

Give people direction and make sure everyone in your organisation can see the crucial role they have to play and don’t just be looking internally, what can you and the team do to help externally.  You need to build within your team a true sense of determination, solidarity and resilience that gives you the best chance of weathering this storm. 

Engagement and involvement in helping find solutions outside of your organisation can also help to galvanise the team and make them feel they are contributing something to resolving the crisis more widely for their community and the world.

An HBR article, ‘Real Leaders Are Forged In Crisis‘ looked at the leadership skills in extremis of Shackleton …

“During his long, dark winter on The Endurance, Shackleton constantly responded to changing circumstances. When his ship got stuck, he shifted his mission from exploration to survival. When the ship was no longer habitable, he instructed his men to build a camp on the ice. When he finally got his team to an uninhabited island, where he knew there was no chance of outside rescue, he and a small group of his men, sailed one of the three lifeboats 800 miles to another island, where he knew he could find help. Four months and three thwarted rescue attempts later, Shackleton finally arrived back on the original island to the rest of his team. They were all alive, and he brought them home”.

Finally but crucially, look after yourself and your own mental health.

You are probably carrying a significant burden at the moment and you need to maintain core principles in maintaining your physical and emotional well being. Not only for you but also if you show signs of flagging then it could impact on your team and those relying on your leadership. 

Leadership in a crisis like this is about keeping calm, but not necessarily carrying on as normal.

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