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  • WSL Leadership

Crisis exposes your daily leadership failings (but don’t lose hope)

There’s an adage that an emergency brings out the real you. I often hear this applied to leaders - you don’t know how to lead until you’ve gone through an acute crisis. But is it true?

In my decades of experience training emerging leaders in challenging circumstances and participating in emergency response training, I’m confident saying this adage is not precisely true.

Challenging situations themselves don’t magically turn people into great leaders. Similarly, who people are on their worst day or at their lowest moment isn’t always a great representation of who they are. Although we like to judge people by their worst actions, how leaders move through a challenge over time is more revealing.

How people respond to a crisis shows how much they’ve prepared themselves to respond to a crisis.

Everyone on the outside, though, is laser-focused on the leader during a crisis. The short story is they will clearly remember how that leader made them feel during that time of heightened awareness and sensitivity.

Leaders who rise to a challenge are the ones who maintain, or even build, trust and respect with their teammates throughout the experience.

These leaders who are attuned to the interpersonal needs of their teammates during a crisis are in the habit of leading with trust and respect in non-crisis times. These leaders can withstand the scrutiny of the situation because their leadership is solid the rest of the time too.

The crisis, in many ways, shows the leader’s true colors, but the reality is that no teammates who know that leader well are surprised during a problem because that leader is just an amplified (scrutinized) version of their daily self.

Crisis exposes your daily leadership failings.

But don’t lose hope.

The best you can do is to build excellent leadership habits right now so that you already have a vast repertoire of emotionally intelligent leadership skills when a crisis arises.

What are you doing now, every day, to lead with emotional intelligence? How are you cultivating psychological safety on your team right now? What learning, leadership experiments, or coaching are you pursuing so that you build that strong leadership foundation?

If you’ve ever taken a CPR or first aid class or done training to respond in medical or other emergencies, you have seen how the basic flow for responding to a crisis is always the same. There’s a moment to assess the situation and usually a checklist of things to do during that first look at what is happening.

It’s no secret that the first step in all of those initial checklists is to take a breath and look at everything happening - the entire scene - before deciding what to do. Sometimes the most obvious (loudest) problem isn’t the real challenge that needs to be addressed first. And sometimes you jumping in to help is more likely to compound the problem rather than improve it.

After understanding what is happening, that assessment leads you to a checklist for responding to what you found.

The assessment and first steps usually have a catchy acronym or logical easy-to, remember progression (A - B - C, anyone?). Then you practice and practice and practice, so the first assessment and steps are at the top of your mind and almost mechanical. The goal is that you’ll be able to respond consistently even when your heart is pounding, or there are other distracting sights and sounds.

Leaders sometimes tell me a crisis blindsided them. Part of this is a need for preparation for possible challenges. One businessy way to do this prep work is to have a pre-mortem thought experiment conversation. In a pre-mortem, you pick a moment in the future (3 months from now, for example) and imagine that everything has gone off the rails by that point, and you’re embroiled in the worst possible crisis. Then get specific about imagining what kind of crisis it is and, more importantly, what would have happened to cause that crisis. After exhausting all the causes, think about what you can do about those potential causes now.

A note about the pre-mortem, without psychological safety in the team, you’ll probably only hear about potential crises arising from competitors or outside forces (market changes etc.) and not about the internal challenges brewing already. Internal challenges can take down an organization just as quickly as external ones.

The pre-mortem is one way to look at the future and plan for that now. The other crucial thing is to continue building your emotionally intelligent leadership habits for yourself as a leader and your teammates.

Just like how psychological safety is a constant practice (vs. a goal you can achieve and check off), emotionally intelligent leadership is a practice that requires consistent attention. It is a journey of elucidation, not a trip to clarity.

The first step of that journey is developing your self-awareness and self-assessment skills. What is your habit of getting meaningful feedback, and what do you do with what you hear? What do you do with what you don’t like hearing? Can you separate what you think you know about yourself from what others perceive and what you think others perceive? How have you grown or changed since the last time you did some deep introspection? You’re probably doing a pretty good job, but what are you missing, or what don’t you want to see?

Self-awareness and self-assessment can be of your daily habits. What can you do with more regularity now to prepare yourself to react when that crisis comes, and your heart is pounding, or your stomach is tied in a knot, or your shoulders tense up, or you start to wake up at 4 am with racing thoughts every night?

The habits you build around listening to and assessing yourself can translate to actions you take when a crisis develops. You won’t be ready for that future thoughtful response if you don’t start to practice now.

We don’t have to live in a constant state of preparing for a crisis. How do you anticipate and plan for things that bring you joy and build habits to support those outcomes? Those habits can start now too.

I hope you are setting yourself up for excellent crisis leadership by building the habits of grounded, values-based, emotionally intelligent leadership in your everyday actions.

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