Leadership Lesson: Great leaders respond, not react, in crisis

Published in the Phoenix Business Journal on April 15, 2020

How do great leaders react to crises?

They don’t. They respond. So what is the difference? Simple – reactions are without thought and tend to fail, and responses are thoughtful and lead to more successful outcomes.

The reactive leader

Reaction is too-often driven by unconscious ego-driven fear, lack of facts, conjecture, bias and individual opinion, and it is based upon past or future thinking. This is the domain of instant, knee-jerk, instant gratification decisions. And, they can be contrived to make the leader look good.

Not taking enough time is a culprit – we want to fix the crisis immediately, no matter what and no matter what it takes. And, these leaders might not look at all the facts, or no facts, or ignore known facts. Often, the problem is hidden from employees, customers and the public.

A common result is that we do not fix the problem, resources are wasted, our teams sit in doubt and fear, and the problem is not resolved. These “solutions” often prompt a return of the same problem – or worse.

The responsive leader

This leader is consciously responsive, not driven by fear and ego, and has a repeatable recipe for methodically managing crises:

  • Gather the executive team and others in the organization to work together.
  • Communicate to the organization what is happening, and when appropriate, to customers and the media.
  • Get all the facts quickly.
  • Dig deep and determine what the real problem is, where it came from and what its likely consequences are.
  • Interview employees and, sometimes, customers to get their inputs.
  • Determine the best alternatives and options to resolve the problem.
  • Select the most likely alternative that will work, factoring time and required resources into the proposed solution.
  • The executive staff, including the CEO, must be the champions for the implementation.
  • Form strong teams to take the necessary actions, and make certain that their inputs are heard before starting.
  • When appropriate, enlist the entire organization to support the actions being taken.
  • Hold daily meetings to track progress.
  • Keep communicating with employees, customers, and others — especially progress being made.

Above all, integrity — be honest and be authentic every step of the way, building trust.

Here's an example of a fast decision gone bad: In 2000, Time-Warner (not doing well) and AOL (about not to do well) merged. Decided in a weekend, it was one of the largest mergers in history at $180 billion. In 2002, it had cumulative losses of $150 billion, one of the worst deals in history.

Here's a constructive decision, gone good: In 1997 Apple was in financial trouble. The board took the time to bring Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple who had been fired earlier, back as chief executive. Apple is now one of the largest and most successful corporations in history.

The bottom line

Take time to make solid decisions in times of crisis. Get the data, define the problem, involve others in forming decisions and implement solutions for success.

Click here to read this article on the Phoenix Business Journal site.