Lead Us Not into Crisis

by David Wimer

Crisis-0714Crises are hard enough in any business. But there are a number of ways to turn a crisis into a catastrophe with very little effort. Unfortunately, some of the behaviors that increase the odds for failure are considered by many to be “leadership.” The following are some of those common leadership responses.

Be overly optimistic. There is a vast body of literature out there that promotes “positive mental attitude.” However, difficult problems, especially systemic ones that have been around for some time, do not correct themselves overnight just because we identify a solution. We actually need to take action! Being overly optimistic about how quickly it may take to make a change or course correction can be deadly to morale, especially when that change doesn’t happen when the company’s leadership says it will or becomes more difficult to accomplish than they said it would be. Having a balanced view of reality, spiced with optimism is paramount to keeping everyone grounded in the here and now.

Deny the problem exists. Some leaders think that if they keep quiet about a problem, others will not know it exists. The truth is that a company’s employees are at least as aware of the problem as its leadership is. Denial only increases fear and lowers respect for the company’s leadership. Dealing with reality is difficult for any of us at times because we can always imagine the worst. We realize we do not have all the answers or think that we have failed. Playing down the importance of a critical situation may cause others not to care as much as they need to.

Dabble in trial and error. Business is a great experiment and there’s a time for trial and error. It’s just not appropriate in crisis. Careful consideration, viable option‐seeking and astute outside advice are ingredients that offer more probability for success than the randomness of “flavor of the day.”

Abandon common sense. “Common sense” is not so common. Trusting instincts alone to survive a potential business death spiral may cause a person to fight back or flee. Rarely are either of those responses necessary or beneficial for overcoming the crisis, and over‐reaction only makes things worse. Applying some common sense will confirm if the chosen actions are helping or hurting. Also, leaders should make sure to seek support from advisors who do apply common sense.

Go it alone. Rugged individualism may be an icon for strength in today’s entertainment culture, but it does not work in a business crisis. Leaders have too many responsibilities to other people to make it all about them. Why? One reason is, we all have natural blind spots and may easily lose vital perspective on the situation and miss options for resolution. Going it alone can also be unhealthy for the individual, especially in crisis. Isolation can result in loss of self‐esteem and depression.

Rely solely on logic. During a crisis, it’s important for employees and other stakeholders to feel that leadership is connected and in touch with the situation. It’s the very time when followers need to connect emotionally. Without that connection, vital employees and partners start to make plans to exit the company rather than help it succeed.

Blame others. Blaming always makes a leader look weak. Blaming others, especially employees, sends a clear message that leadership is not in control of the situation. Fear of blame also inhibits employees from telling company leadership the truth about problems. Taking accountability as the leader means setting the ground rules early and enforcing them. No one is to blame, so let’s
get on with the business of resolving the
crisis together.

Crack the whip. In crisis situations, there is a natural tendency for leaders to demand more from their people, but it must be done carefully and respectfully. In particular, those at the top should not ask their people to endure any hardships (such as pay cuts, mandatory overtime and benefit cuts) they do not endure, themselves, first.

Leadership can be lonely, especially if the leaders alienate those they need to help them solve the front‐line complex problems. With that in mind, it’s important they consider how they might recognize the efforts of others. Acknowledging others’ investment of time and energy goes a long way toward adopting sustainable change, regardless of how uncomfortable the situation may be.

David Wimer is founder and managing principal of David Wimer Advisors, LLC (davidwimer.com), where he works with privately held family businesses to navigate business transitions and prevent financial crisis. He is the author of INSIGHT: Business Advice in an Age of Complexity.

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