April 17, 2020
The Eight Hats of Crisis Leadership
Leading through uncertainty demands different roles at different times
The term “thought leader” was halfway out the door before the pandemic. So devalued had it become that it was difficult to refer to someone as such without a whiff of irony.
But now, as companies big and small grapple with what to do and how to do it in the midst of a crisis of, literally, epidemic proportions, something is becoming crystal clear:: people need leaders who lead people not thoughts.
Building on conversations that began well before WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, we’ve spent the last few weeks dialoguing with executives, thinking through challenges they are facing as they attempt to marshal their teams through what is shaping up to be one of the most arduous experiences many have faced as business leaders.
“This is perhaps the most challenging business role I have had in my lifetime,” says Lori Perella Krebs, Principal at Ancora Investment Holdings.
“I was CEO of another company based in New York when 9/11 happened and this crisis is different. September 11 was undoubtedly a catastrophic event and scarred many New Yorkers emotionally but we united within our industry and started rebuilding soon afterward.”
Uniting, albeit virtually, isn’t the problem now—it’s attempting to rebuild what previously existed under a “shelter in place” order during a pandemic with a recession in the offing that’s costing leaders the most sleep.
Another problem:: no one really knows what is expected of a business leader in a calamity of this scale or complexity because those who were in charge during the last pandemic—the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1920—have long since passed.
Through formal and informal conversations, we’ve discovered that a leader must play not one but several different roles in a leadership position, if they want to inspire lieutenants to do their best work.
Individual leadership styles, as identified by Daniel Goleman, (coercive, authoritative, affiliative, etc), will certainly influence how one wears these hats; but the hats must be worn, and at different moments, to lead teams “in a calm and honest manner,” as Krebs says, through times of great uncertainty.
- The Social Worker:: When the crisis hit, it was hard not to react in a very human way to very human concerns that were suddenly front and center. This requires patience, compassion, and plenty of empathy. As Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer goes, a leader must seek not so much to be consoled as to console. Successful crisis leaders don’t complain to their lieutenants that their feet hurt; they allow their lieutenants to complain to them about aching feet. Once the pain is acknowledged—human to human—those lieutenants will be ready to do the job.
- The Improvisor:: As Kelly Leonard, executive director of Learning and Applied Improvisation at Second City Works, wrote recently, “We are all working script-less. So we need to mine the toolkit of an improviser. We need to say ’yes, and’ rather than ’no’ or ’yes, but’ as a way to create an abundance of ideas and options.” In other words, play the moment—or “scene”—that we’re in right now, not the one we wish we were in. It requires embracing the craziness and the messiness coming every which way, and thinking fast to, as Tim Gunn would say, “make it work” for you and your team.
- The Convener:: Organizing lieutenants around the same table at the same time; having a clear agenda when you get them there; and creating the space to have courageous conversations, hard conversations.
- The Facilitator:: Not only must a crisis leader convene, said leader must be prepared and equipped to drive those hard conversations, knowing in advance the questions to ask of those whose counsel he or she seeks; and of those who are seeking it. Also, great crisis leaders already know what they think; they’ve been training for such a moment all of their professional lives. Having the right questions is far more important than having the fast answers.
- The Interpreter:: There’s an old joke that made the rounds during the late Cold War years:: The Russians and the Americans don’t have any issues; the problem is that interpreters hate one another. A crisis leader is sense-making on the fly, clarifying in real time to make sure other leaders aren’t talking past one another. The messages shared are in fact messages heard.
- The Decision Maker:: The best decision makers know when the decision is working; and when it isn’t. As everything is in flux, the crisis leader is always prepared to rewrite the script as the last thing one wants to do is lead a team on the dread march of folly, toward a goal that is no longer relevant or plausible.
- The Advocate:: If you’ve hired properly, and trust those hiring decisions, then your team is the team that can win in good times…and bad. Conversely, senior leaders must know that you stand with them and for them. For this to work, you must shake off old norms that may be too restrictive and move toward a culture where lieutenants have the agency and autonomy to do what needs to be done, without seeking [repeated] direction from the crisis leader on how to solve problems they are expected to solve on their own.
- The Innovator:: There’s a time for rewriting the old script in a fine fury of desperation, which many leaders are tasked with in the opening stages of a crisis as they scramble to adjust to new conditions and constraints, putting on hat after hat. Then there’s a time for tearing up the script, and creating a new one in an equally fine fury of innovation. Every crisis leader knows, generally, what innovation means; but the truly successful ones know what it actually is:: the systematic identification and disruption of norms that have a bearhug on just about every aspect of any business that involves people. If a leader doesn’t know their norms—how to spot them, how to dismantle them—the leader doesn’t know innovation:: How to use it and where; and how to drive it within an organization that is in the fight of its life.
Wearing each of these hats, playing the related role and, most important, knowing when to play them is one of the fundamentals of succeeding as a leader in a crisis, one who is playing the long game.
And playing to win.
Howell J. Malham Jr. is founder and president of GreenHouse::Innovation, Greentarget’s strategic partner. He is the author of “I Have A Strategy (No You Don’t):: The Illustrated Guide to Strategy.”
Reprinted with permission from “The Eight Hats of Crisis Leadership,” by Howell J. Malham Jr., copyright 2020 by Howell J. Malham Jr.