A Cup of Leadership CaffeineWhen faced with unexpected challenges, a good friend of mine intones what I believe is a fitting old Yiddish quote, “Man Plans and God Laughs.”

Our modern incarnation of that is a less reverent but eminently understandable, “Stuff Happens.”  My word choice here is the less frequently referenced “S-word” from this common phrase.

Learning to cope with the unexpected deviation from your most carefully laid plans is an important part of growing up as a leader.

The most challenging work and life experiences are the ones that shape and mold our character and help us earn the rare and valuable attribute of wisdom.

Of course, it’s hard to sit back when the “Stuff” is hitting the fan and think, “Gee, I’m going to come out of this stronger and wiser.”  Instead of reflecting on your predicament, it’s helpful to have your own approach to cope and act. There will be ample time for reflection down the road.

7 Suggestions for Developing Your Crisis Leadership Skills:

  • Early recognition is keyteach your team members to use their senses and sources to identify and report problems as early as possible. This is harder than it sounds and many otherwise smart leaders establish cultures that discourage early reporting without the whole picture being available.  Don’t shoot your messengers.  Encourage them to look and listen for patterns or signs of problems and to be comfortable taking action to stomp out smoldering fires or to highlight approaching firestorms.  Accurate, early recognition will save the day.
  • Panic and confusion are powerful forces…eradicate them as quickly as possible. Train the people around you to metaphorically shift gears from their initial human reactions of fear or panic to those of reading the situation, processing, response development and action.   Save valuable time by minimizing the “churn” phase.  I’ve watched as teams and leaders squandered precious months attempting to determine whether a problem was real. Don’t fall into this fatal time trap.
  • Remember that the team mirrors your approach to the crisis. I mentioned shifting gears earlier.  YOU need to find another performance and leadership gear that sets the tone and tenor for the team.  If you flail, panic and show fear, your team’s ability to accurately process and respond will melt away.  A concerned but confident demeanor is critical.
  • It’s time to trust.  You might have the title and earn the big bucks for being in charge, but now is not the time to assume that you have to think of everything.  If you’ve cultivated and trained and empowered your team properly, it’s time to trust them to execute on their jobs.  If you cannot trust them, you’ve got bigger leadership problems than the crisis at hand.
  • It’s OK to issue essential orders in a crisis.  While seemingly contradictory to my “trust” mandate above, I’ve observed leader that failed to galvanize an effective response to a crisis by allowing people to spend too much time trying to figure out what to do next.  This is a balancing act.  Don’t hesitate to issue orders on items critical to getting your team to the next step of managing the crisis.  This is why you get paid the big bucks.  Earn them.
  • Breakdown the seemingly impossible challenge facing the team into discrete, manageable steps.  Individuals and teams are easily paralyzed when the scale of a problem or a fix seems overwhelming.  Emphasize discrete steps and focus efforts on what’s in front of them and controllable and fixable right now.
  • Manage the environment. The effective crisis leader stays involved and aware of what’s working and what’s not.  Encouragement, support, resources, help, decisions and knowing when to stay out of the way are all critical tasks and tools of the crisis leader.

The Bottom-Line

One of the worst mistakes that you can make as a leader is to assume that because you said, “Make it so,” your plans will magically unfold without so much as a hiccup.  Whether you subscribe to the belief that “Stuff Happens,” or “Man Plans and God Laughs,” you are well served to recognize that a large part of your role is helping others navigate problems.

Develop an approach that allows you to leverage these great opportunities to teach, to test and to cultivate leadership skills in others.  You will learn a great deal about yourself and your team members in the process.