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Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis

| April 21, 2009

by Jim Bruce

Today, we continue our theme of leading in challenging times with Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis.  The piece’s author is Bill George, author of “True North,” and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School.  He is also the former CEO of Medtronic.

Virtually every American institution is facing some kind of major crisis today.  It’s easy to point to various parts of the financial industry and say that the fault lies there.  George argues that the root cause in today’s crisis is failed leadership.  And, he also argues that the situation will only be righted by wise leadership.  He then offers seven lessons for leaders leading their organizations through a crisis:

1.  Leaders must face reality.  They must recognize their role in creating the problem and work with their team to uncover and gain agreement as to the root causes.  Everyone must be candid in sharing the entire truth, no matter how painful it is.

2.  No matter how bad things are, they will get worse.  Often, we delude ourselves into believing things cannot get worse.  Always anticipating that the worst is yet to come gives you the chance of getting ahead of the situation.  Then, you will emerge in a healthier situation position than you otherwise would.

3.  Build a mountain of cash and get to the highest hill.  This lesson does not apply directly to organizations within a university.  There typically are not ways to create and maintain a cash reserve.  However, an equivalent reserve can be created through identification and elimination of redundant and otherwise marginal services to free resources.  Done wisely, this can cover both budget reductions and provide resources to fund high priority projects needed to meet new opportunities.

4.  Get the world off your shoulders.  Leaders must have help from all their team members.  Bring them into your confidence;  receive their help and ideas;  and gain their commitment to make the necessary sacrifices to resolve the longer-term situation.

5.  Before asking others to sacrifice, first volunteer yourself.  Everyone is watching to see what their leader will do.  Leaders need to step up and make the greatest sacrifice.

6.  Never waste a good crisis.  (This seems the to be the watch-word of the day;  everyone is saying it.)  A crisis gives a wise leader a platform to take the required actions that otherwise might not be permitted.

7.  Be aggressive in your marketplace.  Business as usual is not going to return.  Use the crisis to move to the place you need to be – services offered, staffing levels, etc. – when the crisis ends.

While practicing these lessons may not lessen the pain you experience in getting through the crisis, it will enable you to be at a much better place for the future.


.  .  .  .   jim

When leading in tough times, what leadership practice is MOST important to achieving goals?  Engaging employees to ensure organizational alignment and commitment.  –Right Management <> survey of more than 650 senior leaders and human resource professionals in January and February 2009.