leading through crisis

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This famous quote, first credited to Winston Churchill, has been revived in various iterations with the most recent from Rahm Emanuel: Don’t waste a crisis. 

When you’re in the throes of a true crisis, those may be the last words you want to hear. Nothing about the crisis is “good” and for most leaders, the goal is to simply get through it as quickly as possible. And that should be the goal, but when you unpack the sentiment behind these phrases and embrace it, it can have a profound impact on the outcomes your organization realizes on the other side of the crisis. 

In fact, crisis can be used as a tool to build resiliency, fortitude, and even success. It starts first, however, with deliberate leadership and deliberate awareness. 

Navigating the paradox of faith and reality

In the book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins recounts the story of Admiral James Stockdale who was held captive as a prisoner of war for over seven years during the Vietnam War. Collins writes, “It just seemed so bleak—the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth…how on earth did he deal with it…?” 

Stockdale told him he never doubted that he’d get out but also that he’d prevail and turn the experience into a defining event. But, he said the most important lesson was, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose —with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” 

Thanks to Collins, this is now known as the Stockdale Paradox, and it’s a lesson that proves applicable time and time again –– especially in the volatile climate most business leaders find themselves in today. How do you stay rooted in the realities of today while fostering faith and trust among your stakeholders? One way is through thoughtful candor and communication. 

Communicating with candor

Most leaders fundamentally know communication is critical during a crisis, but how you communicate matters. Instead of a top-down model, which often leads to one-way communication, consider a bidirectional approach in which employees and even customers have the means to convey their questions and suggestions to management. This helps instill trust in company leadership because everyone feels they have a voice and a forum to be heard.

In my experience, one way to foster effective communication is through weekly “all hands” meetings, even when there isn’t much on the agenda. By having a standing appointment with dedicated time for questions from the team, it reassures them that any concerns will be addressed promptly. 

There are also various tools available to gather feedback anonymously –– some in real time –– from employees and customers. Frequent stakeholder feedback not only helps you address concerns before they become real issues, it can also help you make more informed decisions. 

In addition to bidirectional communication, it’s critical for leaders to be transparent and authentic during uncertain times to mitigate any potential anxiety. Many leaders feel the pressure to appear infallible, but being transparent about the realities of the current situation and courses of action being taken builds trust, and demonstrates authenticity and sincerity.   

When all stakeholders are informed and aligned around the realities of the situation and the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of it, it enhances the organization’s ability to plan forward, problem solve, innovate, and stimulate change.  

Paving a path through ambiguity

During the volatile and uncertain environment that followed the Cold War, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus developed the concept of VUCA, a leadership theory to describe or reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of a situation. These four words summarize the current reality. But rather than be thought of as limiting factors, VUCA can sharpen your organization’s capacity to move ahead –– and it sets the stage for effective leadership.  

  • Volatility –– this is the nature and dynamics of rapid change, and to effectively navigate it requires agility or the ability to make decisions quickly. When you embrace constant evolution, there’s no pressure to make the same decision now as you would three months from now. Instead, you can focus on what works, resolve what can be handled in the near term, and adapt as needed to future developments. At MST Solutions, we’ve implemented this by relying on small groups to make more rapid decisions. We also focus on our company’s core values as guiding principles in our agile decision making.
  • Uncertainty –– This is the lack of predictability and when that is lacking, it requires information and awareness. These will be your greatest assets during times of uncertainty, and they are attainable. For instance, when the pandemic hit, our team went to work to gather in-depth information from our customers about their current reality and what they most needed from us. With this information, we were able to confidently makes decisions to meet their needs and ultimately build their trust.
  • Complexity –– this is the interconnectivity and interdependence of forces and they stretch into all areas of your organization. This presents an opportunity to take stock of your processes, systems, and value chains to see where complexity can be met with restructuring. Ask yourself: What areas of redundancy or need have been illuminated by current complications? What can be restructured to achieve greater efficiency?
  • Ambiguity –– This refers to a lack of clarity of a particular situation. You may have access to information, but the meaning of the crisis is still unclear. There’s an opportunity here to innovate –– to experiment with new ideas and find clarity. 

The VUCA framework allows leaders to better anticipate issues, understand the consequences of those issues and actions, prepare for challenges, and interpret and act on relevant opportunities. In other words, embody the Stockdale Paradox. This ability will empower you and your team to emerge from any crisis situation stronger and more resilient.