Harry Nelson

Leading through Crisis: 6 Leadership Lessons

In every organization, there are moments of crisis when something goes extremely wrong. This December marks the second anniversary of such a time for me personally and for our firm. It was a nerve-racking period, when it looked like a bad turn of events might upend our firm. While it was a stressful time, looking back two years later, it ultimately led to clarity, growth, and made us a much stronger organization. I could never have imagined how much we would learn or how much better our organization would get in the process. The anniversary led me to reflect on six lessons I learned about leading through crisis.

1. Assemble a “war cabinet.” In a crisis, things are moving quickly. The good news is that, in these moments, you get to see what people are really made of. The first and best thing I did was to convene a small “cabinet” of the people I trusted most to take stock and get perspective on what was going on. This working group was able to help get a clear sense of what was happening, review and assess the options, and plan next steps.

In those moments where I might have felt isolated and alone, or rushed to act precipitously, or been paralyzed and doubted myself, this inner team made all the difference. They stepped up and went into the fray with me, treated it as a shared problem (not just mine), helped provide clarity and perspective, and shouldered key tasks, like arranging meetings with legal counsel and implementing next steps. Two years later, the trust built in our “wartime” council continues to be a stabilizing force.

2. Own your mistake(s).
The leader needs to own the situation, i.e. look in the mirror and recognize his or her role in creating the problem. Even though there were outside circumstances beyond our control at work, the first thing I did was acknowledge my many mistakes that contributed. In gathering the team, owning the reality, and asking forgiveness, I cleared the space for all of us to focus on the reality and examine not only how to address the short-term crisis, but the long-term root issues we needed to address. By recognizing the reality of where we were and speaking the truth about my role in it, I was able to move quickly to action. I’ve watched others get mired in the crisis by getting into denial, blame, and rationalization (a pattern known as the “victim loop” that Sharon Rich has taught our organization to identify and avoid).

3. Get out the message. In a fast-moving situation, people are nervous. It’s a mistake to sit back and let them wonder where you stand and what’s happening. The uncertainty and office rumor mill foster fear, which you need to manage and dispel. In our situation, I made sure that people knew I was calm and in control. I got out the message to my team.

It is critical to communicate the right message both inside and outside the organization. This needs to feature a sense of reality. Acknowledge the challenging situation, convey confidence that it is being managed, and offer a clear, positive vision about what you are doing, and where the organization is going. Nothing instills confidence more than being positive and direct, conveying in the process that you are in charge, accountable, deliberate, and doing the essential work that needs to be done.

4. Plan for the fluidity of the situation.
Many crises are dynamic and unfold slowly. While I am a person who wants all the cards on the table and prefers to deal with problems quickly and decisively, our situation didn’t allow for that. It was important to accept and communicate to others that the situation was fluid and evolving, that they could get worse before they got better, and that a resolution was going to take time.

This meant that, even as I conveyed hopefulness about the solution, I also needed to be honest about the fact that the things were still in play, and that the timing was unclear. Our war cabinet continually needed to evaluate new information, reassess, adjust, and update both our plans and the message. Within our team, it was helpful to map out alternative options and contingencies to stay on our toes.

5. Do the things that keep you strong.
In stressful times, it’s easy to drop good habits (sleep and exercise) and revert to bad ones (smoking and drinking). Personally, I believe that it’s okay to allow yourself a brief “break” if comfort food or a glass of whiskey helps relieve stress, but that it’s important to get back to habits of good physical health as readily as you can. You need to keep up mental strength, which requires taking care of yourself.

Taking care of yourself also can involve a spiritual or religious component, if it’s remotely within your repertoire. For me, prayer is essential in times of crisis. The lasting memory of our crisis was that it erupted in the middle of the holiday of Chanukah. I treated the timing as meaningful, drawing on the holiday themes — bringing light into a dark world and leading a ragtag militia to triumph over its enemies — as metaphors for what I needed to do.  I used my time alone (and occasionally made my family suffer through) composing and singing a melody for a song of prayer, a small act that sustained my faith that things would work out, and kept me resolute and upbeat.

6. Use the crisis as an opportunity to think bigger.
Ironically, although a crisis may feel like a time when it is good enough just to hold everything together and do damage control with minor fixes, the truth is that a crisis is a unique opportunity to think bigger and make major changes. Internally, you have everyone’s attention and a sense of urgency, which create an opportune time to drive meaningful change.

Externally, the best way to drive a positive message is with something new that changes the game. In our crisis, we formalized a national strategic partnership that attracted media attention and became a bigger story than the crisis itself. More importantly, we identified key changes and plans we needed to mistake that have been the foundation for strong growth over the past two years and, God willing, into the future.

What’s gotten you and your organization through times of upheaval? I’d value hearing from you.

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