A Crisis Can Be Good For You

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Jan 17, 2020

Crises are moments of truth when leaders step up and followers step back. They are your chance to shine and to accelerate your career: you succeed fast or fail fast.

The good news is that the more you step up, the more you learn and the better you become at handling crises, you will be accelerating to success, not failure. But learning from experience is a hard and slow way to learn.

In practice, here are five things you can do to ensure that you have a good crisis.

1. Step up

Do not run away from the crisis: run into it and take ownership of it. This is the moment when no one is sure what to do, and there is a leadership vacuum.

Followers take the safe route and step back into the shadows to see how things play out. This is your chance to step into the limelight and take control. Taking control can be as simple as suggesting a solution and being ready to take it forward. As you do this, you will see power visibly move from the followers to you as the leader.

Having stepped up, you need to maximise your chances of success, which is where the next steps matter.

2. Get help

Lone heroes save the world in the movies, but not in real life.

Leadership is a team sport. So get help, get advice, get support. Get backing from the power brokers. Build your coalition of supporters who will make things happen and give you constructive advice. Do not waste time dealing with the doom mongers who will simply hold you back. Focus your time on those who are positive, willing and able to support.

Building your network of trust and support is a classic 21st century leadership skill. In the past leaders made things happen through people they controlled. Now you have to make things happen through people you do not control, and crises are the ultimate test of this skill set.

3. Drive to action, any action

Analysis is safe, easy and useless. Leave the analysis and post mortems to the followers who hide in the shadows. Action is hard and risky, because it provokes reactions and opposition. But people need to be jolted out of inactivity, and crises rarely cure themselves. More often, crises have a habit of spinning out of control. By taking action, you cement your control and you build momentum and belief that the crisis can be solved.

Your first step might be as small as making some phone calls. It might even be the wrong step in the wrong direction. That does not matter. Once you have momentum you can change direction; if you have no momentum you can change nothing.

4. Act the part

Think back to a crisis of just two years ago. You will find it hard to reconstruct the exact order of events, and other people will remember events differently. But everyone will have vivid memories about how the main actors behaved: Some may have been positive, negative, aggressive, supportive or destructive.

You will be remembered as much for how you acted as for what you did. Learn to wear the mask of leadership: Project hope, clarity and confidence because that is what followers crave in a crisis.

5. Share the credit

You seal your success not by claiming all the credit, but by sharing it as generously as possible.

Sharing the credit works in two ways. First, it signals to the power brokers that you must really have been the person in charge, because only the person in charge knows who to praise. Second, all your colleagues and followers will love you for giving them the oxygen of public recognition, however little it was deserved. You will be building your network of allies and supporters who you will need in future. You gain credit by giving it away.

The good news is that organisational life provides an unlimited supply of crises and moments of uncertainty and ambiguity when no one is quite sure what to do or who should do it. This means you can get plenty of practice in dealing with crises. The sooner you start, the better.

At the start of your career you will have the chance to take on minor crises. These mini-crises are where you can learn what works and what does not work for you. Your peers who play it safe will never learn, which will make them even more unwilling to step up as they encounter larger and riskier crises later in their career. Stepping up will accelerate your career; not stepping up will stall your career.

Learn to love crises, and you will be able to turn crises into opportunities.

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