Leading into a Crisis

About 3 1/2 years ago an elderly couple that lives near me had a kitchen fire. There was a call for help from a neighbor running through the neighborhood, I grabbed a fire extinguisher, ran to the house, entered the kitchen, and put out the fire. In the process, there was a small explosion that burned my face and covered my right hand in burning oil. I eventually put my burning hand out as well, but the damage was significant and permanent. Not everyone who heard the call for help needed to respond to the situation, in fact, most did not… but someone needed to respond. If I had it all to do over would I run into that house again and put out that fire? Absolutely.

Today, many of us leading organizations are also facing our own “fires”…. we call them crises. As I dedicate my time and thoughts to dealing with today’s (and tomorrow’s) crisis facing our organization, I think back on the crisis I faced back in 2016 and some of the lessons learned. Often people talk about leading through a crisis or leading out of a crisis, but perhaps the most important and pivotal time comes when a decision is made to lead an organization into a crisis. The following ideas are drawn from my experience and reflection on leading into crises from 2016 and now in 2020:

  1. Crises are often unexpected – Sure, some crises can be anticipated but many, often the hardest, emerge from a series of events few were anticipating. My Boy Scout training instilled the concept “Be Prepared” in me but frustratingly it never explained what to be prepared for or when. But remember, unexpected, doesn’t mean we are unequipped. Each of us has a lifetime of knowledge and experience as well as teams of willing, confident and capable people within our organizations to draw from.

  2. Sometimes you have to listen closely to identify the crisis – A crisis is not always announced by a neighbor running through the street. In our case at Network TwentyOne, this crisis “tiptoed” in. At first, with the need to cancel an event in Bali, Indonesia that had a couple of hundred international business leaders planning to attend. Soon, however, we began looking closely at the global situation and recognizing that the crisis was real, growing, and potentially catastrophic. This is often not the type of topic an organization looks to proactively address (in fact many did not) however, in our case listening closely and focusing on the trends we were seeing enabled us to take the appropriate action.

  3. Not everyone will step up and into a crisis but someone needs to – Of course no action is always an option but the cost of allowing a crisis to go unattended can be fatal to an organization. I am grateful for the team of global leaders we have assembled in Network TwentyOne that have come together to ensure the execution of our 5 Point Plan and help the organization achieve things that only 6 months earlier would have seemed impossible. 

  4. Focus on a purpose before you seek a process– Anchoring your team on the “why” is critical before focusing on the “how”. Figuring out how things will get done is a vital part of the process but allowing leadership to fully explore and understand the real impact of the crisis and the needs that must be fulfilled is paramount. 

  5. Embrace luck – Yeah, the big leadership thought leaders don’t like this one, its tough to write a book about it. Luck is out there and when you get close to it, grab it with both hands. The doctor’s attending to me in the ICU commented on several occasions how lucky I was to have closed my eyes and mouth during the explosion … many/most suffer burnt throat, lungs and eyes from such an explosion but I was spared. Similarly, the 36-month rollout our global digital media platform was completed just two weeks before this crisis began. Taking credit for either of these lucky outcomes as a function of say my reflexes or intelligence would be nothing more than an arrogance trap… I’m not that fast or that smart. To put it in today’s terms, embracing luck is not a vaccination against arrogance… think of it more like hand sanitizer.

  6. Prepare for pain – This is not a fairy tale where everything simply works out perfectly for all. There will be pain and as a leader, you are 1st in line. Don’t get me wrong, there can be some big wins and celebrations along the way, but crisis brings pain. Seeing the recent virus trends as well as the US and global unemployment figures should make us all aware that whatever pain we have experienced, there is more to come. Be strong, communicate your vision, and lean on the point 7 heavily.

  7. Through it all give thanks, look for the good and seek gratitude – This is the secret anyone leading into a crisis must understand. Regardless of the situation you find yourself in, it could be infinitely worse. The beauty of this concept is that it intersects seamlessly with and strengthens one’s faith in the process. This is not simply a point for crisis leadership but a life skill that will enhance your strength, peace, and joy. Not sure you buy into all of that? Then know this, people do not like being around, and will only reluctantly follow a bitter, cynical, and ungrateful leader. 

Network TwentyOne saw the COVID-19 crisis evolving in February 2020 and began to adjust globally. At first, it was limited to postponing a few international meetings, but it soon became clear that a significant re-evaluation of our global business support model would be required. I am proud to be part of a team that “ran into this fire”. Here is a press release outlining the basic 5 Point Plan we began implementing back in early April. At the time, we were not even sure how we were going to implement this strategy across 44 countries in 24 languages, but we did it.

This was not our first, nor will not be our last crisis as an organization. Although there is still much to be done, additional crises are likely awaiting us in the next weeks and months. The pain is real and will continue for some time, but just as with my neighbor’s kitchen fire, I would do it all over again without hesitation or regret and grateful for being given the opportunity to lead… into a crisis.