Leadership Caffeine™: Surviving as a Leader When Things Go Horribly Wrong

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.

By | 2016-10-22T17:12:01+00:00 October 18th, 2009|Career, Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|17 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Wally Bock October 18, 2009 at 4:06 pm - Reply

    Great post, Art. As someone who’s been a leadership position as the wheels not only came off the cart but went spinning merrily down the hill, I sure wish I’d had advice like this in advance.

    One thing I’ll add for this connected world. Assume that everyone will find out everything. It may be sooner or it may be later, but everyone will know. So act like that’s going to happen avoid a secrecy strategy.

    You can also plan for a significant number of the kinds of disasters you will face. These don’t have to be complex, formal plans. Just play “What if?” a lot and think about how you’ll respond in various situations. Do it with your staff, too.

  2. Art Petty October 18, 2009 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Wally, fantastic additions to this important topic. Great point on the secrecy issue. And you bet, scenario planning of any sort can truly be valuable. Thanks for sharing your wisdom! -Art

  3. Peg Rowe October 18, 2009 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    Art, really thorough set of guidelines and Wally’s additions are right on as well. I appreciate that you point out some of the paradoxes leaders must grapple with quickly – trust your team AND give essential orders, both are required to navigate through a crisis.

    On giving orders, I think of it as the need to command attention and get everyone out of the building when there’s a fire. That’s the time to exert “power over” and take charge.

    There’s a place for collaboration and a place for exerting control. The effective leader knows when to step into each mode.

  4. Paul McConaughy (@MiNutrition October 19, 2009 at 7:28 am - Reply

    I agree. Great post Art. Your recommendations are solid and I wish I’d had them and used them a number of times. I think it is especially important that you have identified the seemingly contradictory roles of trust and decision making. Sometimes it is amazing how much progress is made simply because everyone was waiting for someone to make a decision. Once you make the decision everyone surges ahead.

  5. Steve Bent October 19, 2009 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Great post!

    I fall down at steps 2 & 5.

    BUT now I know!


  6. Elaine Hirt October 19, 2009 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    I just finished reading “Joker One.” The platoon leader exhibited each one of these steps that you outlined above, Art. When they were faced with having to figure something out and the platoon leader hesitated, one of his squad leaders would take action. The platoon leader trusted his team of squad leaders to assess and take the necessary course of action without being micromanaged. They were allowed that kind of freedom, even in non-life & death situations.

    Thank you for summing it all up. It all relates–even on the battle field.


  7. Jennifer Mizzi October 19, 2009 at 11:15 pm - Reply

    Great post! I think the suggestion on how it is important to realize that your team mirrors your approach to the situation is key. In a crisis situation a team is automatically going to look at the leadership positions to get cues on how to proceed. If you can’t get a hold of the situation, you can’t expect those you lead to do any better.

  8. […] By Art Petty at Management Excellence. […]

  9. Pamela Howell October 20, 2009 at 7:47 am - Reply

    What great advice! Thanks.

    I learned my crisis management skills at an extremely early age, but it’s always good to be reminded of the crucial steps. I’ve found that I sometimes ignore the environmental niceties in a crisis, which usually just makes the crisis worse for everyone involved. Support functions like making sure everyone involved is getting breaks, food, and enough rest really truly help the whole situation get better!

  10. Art Petty October 20, 2009 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Apologies for falling so far behind on comment responses. Thanks to all for jumping in!

    Peg, well said on that important point of recognizing when orders are required versus when to let things flow. And I agree…Wally’s additions are excellent!

    Thanks, Paul for your comment as well. It’s critical that the leader become attuned to team dynamics and the stall points. Experience and a lot of paying attention are great teachers here!

    Steve, thanks for the honesty and rest assured that you are not the only one that has struggled in these areas. Thanks for calling out 2…minimize the churn phase.
    This is a response killer and so many groups fall into this trap. Perhaps now, your former “misses” will become strengths!

    Elaine, what a great example. Another book for my reading list! Glad to know that this list has some applicability in the ultimate stress situation.

    Pamela, thanks as well for your comment! Great guidance on the “support functions.” I will need to do a better job incorporating that component in this list.

    Thanks to all…for reading and commenting. It’s great to learn from all of you. -Art

  11. Nick Halen October 21, 2009 at 11:07 am - Reply

    Great post Art,
    I take this post very personal and this is how I strive everyday to lead in my organization. Everyday there is always something that doesn’t go quite as planned and we as leaders are faced with the decision of how to deal with it. It is how we react to this is what defines us as leaders. As a leader I am constantly striving to always look at the positive or the bright side of something. I try taking every situation and learn from it so that in the future I cannot make the same mistake twice. Because of my attitude towards situations is, most of the time, very positive, I believe this attitude is very much mimicked by the employees around me.

  12. Three Star Leadership Blog October 21, 2009 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    10/21/09: Midweek Look at the Independent Business Blogs…

    Every week I select five excellent posts from this week’s independent business blogs. This week, I’m pointing you to posts on how to build a culture of fear, the misuse of technology, two posts that look at what happens when crisis hits, and challeng…

  13. Wally Bock October 21, 2009 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


    Wally Bock

  14. Art Petty October 21, 2009 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    Wally, thanks for the selection. It is an honor!


  15. Matthew Dent October 21, 2009 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    Great topic Art! I completely agree with the quote, “Man Plans and God Laughs.” I work in the construction industry specializing in building bridges. No matter how effectively we plan we tend to operate in a crisis mode. On a daily basis we place concrete and because it is a time sensitive product being delayed even a minute could cause the whole load to be rejected and now you are operating in the negative. In the beginning it is very difficult to grasp this idea of being able to operate in crisis mode. We are taught and told to control every aspect of our lives and that things could be improved upon. I think for young leaders it is difficult to train for a crisis because you truely won’t know how you will react until you experience a crisis.

  16. Art Petty October 21, 2009 at 5:25 pm - Reply

    Matthew, great example with your work and I agree that you don’t know how you will handle the crisis until you experience your first one. Build us some strong bridges, please! Best, Art

  17. […] is an excellent article at the Management Excellence blog that I thought you’d enjoy called “Surviving as a Leader When Things Go Horribly Wrong.” It’s by Art Petty, a management consultant and college professor at DePaul […]

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