About the Crisis Leadership Forum

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.

To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.

To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bill George on Crisis Leadership

Bill George writes in Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge on crisis leadership and the opportunity it provides to develop one's leadership skills:

"Leaders are neither made nor born. Like great musicians and athletes, they are born with certain gifts that give them the potential to lead, but they have to develop their gifts in order to become effective leaders. There is no better way to do so than leading others through a crisis."

Bill writes about the value of humilty in recognizing the limitations of what a leader can know and can do in a crisis:

"One of the great myths of leadership in recent years is that leaders have to appear strong and invulnerable to mistakes and pressures. All of us without exception make mistakes and will capitulate under enough pressure. The key is being open with others, taking them into your confidence, admitting your mistakes, and looking to them for advice and support. Rarely does anyone turn down a leader who genuinely asks for help.

Yet we're exposed regularly by the media to the stereotype of the flawless leader who always has an answer and is never left questioning a decision. While most leaders know this is a fantasy, they still struggle with admitting their own vulnerability when a situation goes awry and crisis strikes. It's as if doing so is tantamount to admitting failure as a leader.

This tension is not necessarily surprising. Fortune 500 CEOs are some of the most driven, results-oriented people on the planet. Because their jobs compel them to demand a great deal from their employees, their companies, and their products, most demand the same from themselves. In so doing, they are at risk of letting their egos take over and letting their protective shells harden. When things go wrong—which they inevitably do—they assume the fault lies elsewhere. Yet in most cases the leaders bear a high degree of responsibility for the problems, often as a result of the direct or indirect pressures they put on their people.

Authentic leaders find ways to resolve this struggle. Expressing humility is a great skill because it not only brings leaders closer to their management teams and employees, but also encourages similar candidness and humility in others. By taking the first step in revealing their vulnerabilities, leaders encourage an atmosphere where concerns and doubts are voiced. Potentially unforeseen problems can be addressed sooner, and with a team focus. It's difficult to do, but expressing vulnerabilities appropriately will make leaders more effective."

Bill suggests that leaders in a crisis don't need to carry the load alone nor be perfect. As we found in the Crisis Leadership Forum, a leader can be be more effective when they serve as a conductor of collective capabilities and wisdom.

Furthermore, Bill's perspective on crisis situations as a way to hone leadership skills makes sense. As we've found, the kind of skills needed for dealing with a crisis are increasingly in demand in a world that is in constant flux.

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