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The Real Conversation: 5 Questions in Leadership During Crisis

Apr 16, 2020 | Leadership & Personal Development

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Take a moment and look around.  

At your place of work, you have your managers and executives. In your community, there’s your households, school officials, and small business owners. Of course, there’s also your state governors and the country’s top leadership.  

Across all these layers of authority, what are various people in charge talking about? What were they doing before any emergencies arrived? And now, how is their leadership during crisis truly being demonstrated? 

At least nationally, in 2017, Janet Yellen publicly declared that we likely would never see another financial crisis in our lifetimes. By 2019, the Fed was bailing out banks secretly in the middle of the night. In January 2020, they told us it was the greatest economy ever. By March, there was record unemployment. 

If we can’t trust the foresight of many leaders during regular times, how much more should we trust it under pressure?  

The Usual Suspects 

So, I wanted to know: what were major sources talking about regarding leadership in crisis? 

With a quick search, I found all the usual, whitewashing suspects. McKinsey, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. But oddly enough, not one single one of the articles on the front page were written before this crisis. 

How could it be that all these resources for leaders did such little thinking about crisis leadership before now

Of course, they’ve all become experts overnight. 

What did all these articles have to say now that we’re in a crisis? More than one upheld gun control as effective leadership. None discussed anything related to the full-blown financial crisis we have on our hands. All of them sounded like they were written by the human resources department at a major corporation. It could all be boiled down to a handful of trite ideas. 

  • Keep your cool 
  • Be proactive and adapt 
  • Show you care but not too much 
  • Act quickly 
  • Minimize losses 
  • Everyone’s in it together  

You can’t make this shit up. During record unemployment, major stock market selloffs, lockdowns, and the rest…. they’re still shoveling leadership porn. 

Candy for lesser leaders, if you will. 

Darker Questions from Leadership During Crisis 

Let me confirm your suspicions: behind closed doors, there are far different conversations taking place. I’ve listened to them in a variety of context, from the 2008 crisis forward. These are all very real questions asked on-the-ground in meetings of people with power. And you won’t hear much about them in public. 

Because if you did, you might gain a different perspective…. or learn a few new tricks yourself. Let’s take a look.

  • Who’s expandable, in what order will I discard them, and how can I keep them from knowing until absolutely necessary? 

Across the nation, employees are being told that their jobs are secure or that they’ll be hired back in a month. The reality? Privately, some of these same managers are telling me, sometimes right after assuring entire divisions, that all those people won’t be there in a month. This is almost always one of the first questions discussed at private meetings during crisis. 

New Trick for Professionals: never, ever think of yourself as indispensable, but within reason, shield yourself by making yourself more integral to the organization or process. But be aware, more specifically, that some business managers are trained to avoid employees doing so. 

  • How can we keep everyone calm long enough to protect ourselves and our positions? 

If you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed record numbers of corporate CEOs cashing out this year after huge payouts fueled by stock buybacks. Obviously, panicking people might panic buy, for example, as we’ve seen at grocery stores. But if everything’s okay… there’s more time for those in top positions to insulate themselves. 

New Trick for Professionals: Stay calm. Freaking out in a serious situation is never a good idea. But leadership in crisis knows to quietly re-position to protect themselves. So, follow that line of thinking. 

  • How can I make sure that I don’t let this crisis go to waste?  

“Never let a crisis go to waste” is a now famous saying once publicly uttered by a high-ranking American politician. And in private meetings, it’s not hard to imagine how those in power use emergencies to consolidate power, blame rivals, or take credit for anything good that happens. And they’ve even said so publicly.  

New Trick for Professionals: Prepare for showdowns, power struggles, and purges. At the same time, be cautious about who you align yourself alongside, even as you seek allies.   

  • Who can’t I trust to back up my version of events? 

By now, it’s practically common knowledge that various people have a stake in keeping the story straight. And behind closed doors, you’ll often hear a messy conversation as different people in charge determine and even get straight what they’re going to tell everyone else below them and how it might benefit them. 

New Trick for Professionals: You can always be sure that, in any organization, whatever the official story is… is probably not what actually happened, is happening, or will happen. However, you want to be hesitant in who you reveal that belief to.  

  • What if this situation ends in collapse? 

A much darker question that most regular people, in all honesty, don’t want to think about. But which is also important to consider, especially as a business owner, executive, or civic leader. Publicly, someone in charge might maintain a positive face, or if they’re a better leader, an optimistic but realistic attitude. However, more than a few leaders determine full exit plans for themselves that do not include the majority of people they lead. 

New Trick for Professionals: plan for the worst case, even if you hope it never comes to pass. Have an exit plan that allows you to mitigate your losses and pivot toward new opportunities. 

The bottom-line is simple: in our culture, leadership during crisis, at all levels, can present itself one way to you but another when conversations turn real. Is this real leadership? It doesn’t matter; plan accordingly.


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