5 biggest failures of leaders in a crisis


Published on: March 2020

Written by: Laura Fay

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus

The current crisis facing most companies as a result of the global pandemic has tested us all and made us wonder whether our crisis planning is adequate for today’s modern, potentially existential issues facing businesses.

While issues are coming at us quickly, we are having to make decisions – often without a sufficient design plan in place. Now is a good time to document as you go, to create a “living document” for the current AND future crises. In this process, you may notice failings or weaknesses in the system that must be addressed; fixing them may ultimately strengthen and stabilize your business for the long-term.

Our conversations with clients have helped us identify what seem to be the most common failings. Rather than discourage you, we hope this prompts your thinking and helps you to communicate to your organization what you’re doing now, how you are looking ahead to be prepared for the future, and how they can contribute.

1.   Failure to plan for the unthinkable.

Most businesses have a continuity plan in place, but they aren’t often reviewed, refreshed, or tested. Steps you’re taking right now should be documented for future reference. We recommend four ways to do that.

  • Write it down: As you make decisions or implement strategies, take time to capture the change or new action and document it.
  • Update it: Schedule time at each quarterly business continuity planning session to discuss real-life scenarios in which every policy, procedure, and functional area is tested.
  • Incorporate it: Make business continuity planning and testing a strategic imperative, driven and supported by the senior leadership team. Involve the CEO to ensure it is taken seriously.
  • Learn from it: Record and capture learnings from the tests in the firm’s documented continuity plan. While you can’t ever predict the scope or impact of every possible scenario, you can minimize just how far you have to go to cover your bases.

2.   Failure to see beyond the usual “blinds spots.”

A challenge many leaders face is that they have grown up in a business together and have experienced many of the same situations as a group. While they have a common understanding of the business and operations, this collective viewpoint can lead to group think — reinforcing the current direction, rather than raising counterpoints.

During this crisis and beyond, you need other experts around the table, people who challenge your way of thinking and bring different perspectives to help uncover those blind spots. Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were both known for bringing close their adversaries and people who irritated the status quo. Take steps so you are preparing to look beyond the known:

  • Welcome different opinions and dissenting views
  • Create a culture in which colleagues and team members can speak up
  • Add new voices who can identify potential issues or problems that you might not see

3.   Failure to admit mistakes, even if unintended.

Take heed of the lesson a CEO of a large financial organization recently learned. He was repeatedly criticized for a very slow and less-than-heartfelt effort to take responsibility for illegal practices within the firm. He did not assume accountability for wrong-doing, leaving customers and regulators dismayed, costing him his job, and damaging the company’s brand reputation.

One of the most important tenants of crisis leadership is to accept responsibility, acknowledge missteps, and commit to transparency. You can expect that whatever you are doing, there will be critics. If you expect legitimate criticism, have a plan on to respond – it’s not too late. If your company was a little slow determining the right COVID-19 response, or unable to nimbly get remote employees up and running, be upfront and say so. A simple message like – “We needed to do better, we will do better, this is how we’re doing better” – will go a long way in solidifying trust and employee engagement through what will likely be an extended crisis period.

4.   Failure to focus.

When a crisis hits, it is difficult for leaders to focus. Yet decisions need to be made, and quickly. There will be different views on what should happen now, and later. Take those into account without allowing “too many cooks in the kitchen” trying to call the shots on the same issues. Concentrate on the problem to solve with good decision-making technique to create focus.

  • Define the problem. As a leader you can start by asking the question, “what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” Pausing to get this right, before you start solutioning, prevents you and the team from wasting time on the wrong issues or getting stuck in endless debate.
  • Define the criteria. Generate criteria for potential outcomes, before you discuss any solutions. If you throw out solutions without having a method to evaluate them, that can start an endless conversation loop. Establish a means of assessing desirability, feasibility and viability of each possible outcome and rank them in importance.
  • Agree on solutions. Brainstorm a list of possible solutions, and then cross-reference with your established criteria. Combine solutions if necessary and rank them in terms of how they meet the criteria. Vote, and narrow the list to no more than two solutions to be tested.

5.   Failure to act. 

Crisis is a strange time. You need to thoughtfully and intentionally respond, yet the environment requires you to be decisive and act quickly, often without all the information. Some leaders get paralyzed by the need to get all the facts and more before they move.

Don’t wait until you have your plan 100% finalized before you communicate or execute. You need to make a move based on what you know.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t adapt as you go. In a crisis like this where so much is unknown and hard to anticipate, give yourself flexibility to incorporate new information. Look at how things evolve and discuss the impact on your current thinking and plan. Modify, discard, or stay the course.

18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns one said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Accepting that things will go wrong is the first step. Learning and growing from the experience is next. Consider these steps and you’ll help your organization move from crisis to calm, and ultimately – survive and thrive.

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