This is the fourth of my five-part series on crisis leadership.
If you’re like many people, you tend to equate ‘crisis’ with ‘disaster.’ But the word crisis actually comes from the Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ It describes any event – whether positive, negative or neutral – that separates a new reality from an old one. Thinking about crisis in terms of ‘separation’ certainly doesn’t eliminate the difficulty and loss of change. But when leaders look at crisis as being cast into a new world, vs. as being thrown to their doom, they may be more able to navigate the storm of change productively.
In Part 1 of this series, I explored the implications of this different lens on crisis, and mapped out four essential “renewal” tasks for crisis leadership: 1) Catching one’s breath; 2) Confronting what’s happening now; 3) Connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and 4) Charting the next right step.
Part 2 focused on the first of those tasks: “catching one’s breath.” This task requires pulling yourself out of the fray of change and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Taking the time to reflect and get your bearings feels counterintuitive when the world is going haywire. But it’s critically important work, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re in a swirl.
Part 3 explored the task of “confronting what’s happening now.” In disruptive change, the world is rearranging us, so we must likewise shift our response to it. To do that, we must lead others in seeing what’s happening, making sense of it intellectually and processing it emotionally. This is what it means to confront something – to face it head-on and heart-in.
This post is about the third task of crisis leadership: connecting to what’s essential and enduring amidst the change.
In crisis, we can become preoccupied with what’s being lost or threatened. Your world may be turning on its head and upending you, your team and your organization in the process: fighting for survival; recasting missions; questioning long-held beliefs; restructuring, regrouping or recovering.
But in the press of adaptation, we often forget to anchor ourselves in those things that aren’t changing, which can sustain and stabilize us. These are usually deeper “DNA” things like values (personal and organizational), shared history, accumulated knowledge, unique capabilities, or a strong reputation. There’s an essential “you” (or “us”) that continues, even if you have to radically change how you express it in your new reality.
Over the past months, I’ve been in conversations with many leaders who are remembering to tap into what is essential and enduring. Here are some examples of how they’ve expressed that:
“I know we have to pay attention to the business. But focusing on our people is the only way this business survives.”
“Everything about how we do our work is changing. And personally, I don’t agree with the new direction. But I keep bringing myself and my staff back to our core mission – which is, has been, and always will be – of vital importance. We will adapt whatever we need to in order to keep this critical mission alive.”
“The company is exerting enormous pressure on us to sell, sell, sell. But what’s always won us business is delivering exceptional results for our clients. So that’s what we’re going to keep doing. I’m keeping an eye on sales, but I’m not going to chase ‘just any’ work or work we can’t deliver on.”
“Our church is losing its pastor after 30 years. We have two main tasks in this transition. The first is to affirm this community’s many strengths, which are the pastor’s legacy to us. Our second job is to be intentional about drawing on those assets, so that the congregation stays robust beyond him.”
We can all take a cue from these leaders, who are drawing on foundational values and assets for stability in the storm. But that doesn’t mean it’s all going to work out for them – or you. Maybe you’ll still have to lay off staff. Can you challenge yourself do that in a way that’s true to the organization’s animating values? True to your own? Perhaps your team will lose the funding for its cherished project. Rather than fight to keep a doomed project alive, can you lead your team in reimagining its offering for a new world?
This makes sense, right? But you’d be surprised how often I see leaders abandon essential and enduring strengths as they scramble to adapt to a new reality. Try not to join their ranks. Instead, remember to articulate and amplify what is good and abiding amidst the change.
What about you?
- Think of a time when you led (or are leading) in profound disruption?
- How consciously or effectively did you leverage the power of what is “essential and enduring” during that time of change? What were the results?
- The next time you face a major ‘separation,’ how can you better articulate and amplify the aspects of your organization that will continue?