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Dealing with the Two Fronts of Every Crisis

Dealing with the Two Fronts of Every Crisis

EVERY CRISIS places a leader between two fronts: Issue and Fear. Understanding the difference and managing both is key to dealing with a crisis successfully.

There are different kinds of crises, but this dynamic applies to both types. There is the crisis where the issue is known, there is a procedure for handling it, and success in dealing with it comes down to proper execution of the solution. A “routine risk event” can be accompanied with fear, but it rarely evolves into panic as uncertainty is minimal.

A true crisis event is different because we lack familiarity with it and there are, as crisis expert Harvard Business School Professor Herman “Dutch” Leonard puts it, “significant elements of novelty to it.” He says as there is no precedent for it, there is no playbook for handling it. There is no script for managing it. In a true crisis, you are faced with rapid, real-time innovation under stress “embedded in fear.” He adds, “That’s a fundamentally different kind of human challenge. It feels chaotic and unsettling, and that’s the way it always feels.

This is where we find ourselves now in April of 2020—a true crisis.

The Issue Front

A true crisis has many moving parts that lack connection. There is no playbook. Unlike a routine risk event where you have figured out in advance what the key issues are and which ones take precedence, in a true crisis event, you will often see, says Dutch, “competing priorities which you have never had to trade-off before. You have a whole bunch of things that are colliding simultaneously, and you haven’t necessarily had a chance—in previous experience—to sort out which is most important.”

Dutch says what crisis management needs is not answers but an effective process. This idea is encapsulated in his phrase, “learning our way forward.” Because of this, we won’t get it right the first time. We simply don’t know. We might speculate, but we don’t know. In some ways, we are operating blind in a crisis, and this often generates a great deal of uncertainty and fear. We must learn to push through the fear and trust in the process.

Dutch says organizations need to approach the crisis with a more “entrepreneurial, innovative, and forward-looking leadership stance and convene a process to solve these problems in real-time. The process consists of the people you bring together and the way they interact.”

A crisis management team needs to consist of three categories of people. First, you need people who understand the goals and priorities of the organization so as to get all of the concerns out on the table. Second, you need people who know about the crisis. These can be people inside the organization, but depending on the nature of the crisis, more often than not, they will need to be credible people from outside the organization. And finally, you need people who really understand your organization—how it works—how things get done.

Together these three groups of people can talk about what we care about, what is the actual situation, and how we as an organization fit into and relate to the crisis. This discussion helps keep everyone centered and serves as a guide to execution. Dutch notes that this team doesn’t get into problem-solving but is tasked with understanding the issues overall. The problem-solving is delegated but delegated in a way that none of the important issues are missed in finding a solution.

A crisis calls for agile leadership. Select options, try them, get feedback, and try again—a problem-solving experimental approach. It is learning our way forward. “We are learning as fast as we can. We must avoid quick answers. We get better as we move along.” Leaders must have a learning-oriented, process-based mindset, and this thinking must be communicated to everyone affected by the crisis, to effectively deal with the Fear Front.

The Fear Front

The critical skill a leader must possess is the ability to separate the signal from the noise. It is the noise that generates the most fear.

While there will always be some degree of anxiety, the fear that often leads to panic diminishes our ability to respond and to be patient in working out the response. Fear reduces clarity and trust in the process. We become gullible and self-centered. Fear cripples us.

Here are several ways to help fight fear:

Always Keep the Big Picture in Mind

When dealing with a pandemic, The World Health Organization is concerned not only about the disease itself but the problem of combating the infodemic, which they define as “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

In The Signal and the Noise, statistician and New York Times contributor Nate Silver explains that “if the quantity of information is increasing by 2.5 quintillion bytes per day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn’t. Most of it is just noise, and the noise is increasing faster than the signal. There are so many hypotheses to test, so many data sets to mine—but a relatively constant amount of objective truth.”

Not that new evidence will never outweigh all other data and theories, it can, but we tend to “focus on the newest or most immediately available information, and the bigger picture gets lost,” writes Silver. This tendency narrows our view and sends our emotions into a downward spiral if not checked. Keeping the big picture in mind will help us to make measured choices and build trust in the process.

Educate to Bring Clarity

Leaders provide clarity by informing and educating people on what they know and how they fit into the issue. In the absence of credible information, people tend to gravitate to the worst-case scenario.

In his first address to the nation since his Pearl Harbor address on December 7, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt was compelled to inform and educate the American people of the issue. He wanted to provide the big picture. He said, “I’m going to ask the American people to take out their maps. I’m going to speak about strange places that many of them have never heard of—places that are now the battleground for civilization. I want to explain this war in laymen’s language; if they understand the problem and what we are driving at, I’m sure that they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin.”

FDR Fireside Chat

Roosevelt saw the morale of the American people as his responsibility. His intent was to drive out fear by education and consistent communication. The Crisis Industry—those journalists, politicians, and experts that seek to profit from a crisis—was alive and well in FDR’s time too, and education is the only way to combat it.

Remain Steady

Communicate the uncertainty. We don’t know, and that’s part of the process. There is a joke about the statistician that drowned crossing a river that was only three feet deep on average. Predictions can only be at best approximations based on current data, and even that can be manipulated if it is not placed in its proper context. All data exists in a relationship to other facts. Over time these relationships add clarity. As we gather more and more data, we come closer to the truth.

Blame has no place in leadership. Blame is a form of panic. It is silly to blame others in a situation where the answers are not known, and opinions are rampant. Blame is not leadership; it is reactionary and only impedes the way to a solution.

Look for the positive events in the crisis. It will help you to clarify and minimize, if not solve, the remaining negative issues.

Make People Agents of Something Positive

People’s anxiousness comes from the sense that things are out of control, and they have no capacity to direct the course of their lives. Leaders must speak to that anxiety, give hope, and pull the issues down to the realm of personal responsibility. What can I do now?

In The Splendid and the Vile, historian Erik Larson shares that John Martin, one of Winston Churchill’s secretaries, wrote in his diary about Churchill, “Under his leadership Britons began to see themselves as ‘protagonists on a vaster scene and as champions of a high and invincible cause.’” Larson explains how Churchill helped people manage their fears at the beginning of WorldWar II:

Recognizing that confidence and fearlessness were attitudes that could be adopted and taught by example, Churchill issued a directive to all ministers to put on a strong, positive front. “In these dark days the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues in the Government, as well as high officials, would maintain a high morale in their circles; not minimizing the gravity of events, but showing confidence in our ability and inflexible resolve to continue the war till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all Europe under his domination.”

Fear is contagious and has an exponential effect. Nigel Hamilton writes in The Mantle of Command, that FDR felt, “A leader must exhibit confidence since the slightest hint of anxiety or dejection would spread like ripples in a pond.”

When we deal with the crisis with a positive expectation and manage the fear, we open ourselves up to possibility, opportunities, and self-efficacy. The crisis will past, of course, but our experience of it and our success in solving it depends on how we respond to it and manage the fear.

As leaders, how can we become beacons of hope for our families and organizations? To help people embrace the future and not the past?

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 03:31 PM
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