A leader in a crisis is a dealer in hope, but hope is not a strategy

The quote from Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago 2011 to 2019, and before that Chief of Staff to Barack Obama, has been on my mind for the past week: You never let a crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

He was referring to the economic conditions of the day. Today, the unexpected and unpredicted are knocking at the door as we struggle to combat COVID, and in relation to that, an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before is not just a wonderfully positive statement of fightback ambition, it’s a personal leadership strategy.

So, embracing the optimism from Emanuel’s statement, what if you could change gears and think the unthinkable in the current pandemic? What if you challenged yourself to stop trying to manage the absolute in the crisis and instead focused your energies on being a true leader?

A leader is a dealer in hope, but hope is not a strategy. You need to be a leader who understands the anatomy of a crisis to inspire and create an ‘all hands-on deck’ reaction. The essence of organisational response to a crisis is entwined with how a leader acts: decision making must be decisive, priorities and objectives well defined, communication fluid and clear as they lead both the practical and emotional responses to the challenges.

The key is giving your team assurance you are on top of the situation, making the tough, often unpopular decisions with a firm but sensitive hand, and making these decisions on a timely basis. Don’t hesitate, act now. Don’t wait. Once the decision has been made, share it, even if it is unpleasant news. Procrastination won’t make the outcome any better, and the longer you wait the more anxiety will grow and a fallout of trust and confidence will begin. 

For me , elements of effective crisis leadership include empathy, transparency and trustworthiness, standing tall as a beacon of strength, assuming responsibility. People don’t want vague populist rhetoric broadcast from the town hall steps, they want a leader that acknowledges the detail of the personal hardship they are facing with a sense of context and reality, communicating empathetically with honesty and clarity. A leader must acknowledge that uncertainty creates anxiety, and so empathise that the anxiety people are feeling is an appropriate reaction. They must connect on a personal level.

But accepting the pandemic presents unprecedented leadership challenges, I fear history will record Boris Johnson’s leadership handling of Covid as an exemplar in confusion, repeated mistakes and failure. In a crisis, leaders show their mettle, real leaders are forged in a crisis, the phrase ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ comes to mind, but not with Johnson.

Johnson has prevaricated and dithered. His failure to impose an early lockdown in March, and not impose border controls was catastrophic. Since then, he has not recognised or learned the importance of swift, decisive intervention in a crisis. Far from compensating for his past errors, Johnson continues in the same bombastic style, lurching from one U-turn and repeated over-promise, under deliver statementto another in a consistently weak style of leadership.

His most dysfunctional act of leadership for me was at the start of this month. On 3 January, in an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, he stated, ‘schools are safe’ and urged parents not to keep children at home. Indeed, the government threatened legal action on local authorities that wanted to keep schools shut.

The following day, many children returned to schools in England. That same evening Johnson announced another national lockdown in a televised address. He contradicted himself brilliantly: ‘schools are vectors of transmission’. He justified this by claiming the infection figures changed rapidly, but ­anyone keeping with an eye on the data could see that by the time of Johnson’s Marr appearance, the situation was already spiralling out of ­control. Either Johnson was ­being economic with the truth or he was simply not on the detail. Whatever interpretation, this is unacceptable and careless leadership.

Johnson never moves until he is forced, and then it is usually too late, and he has continually offered false hope. Back in March, he declared that we would ‘send coronavirus packing within 12 weeks’; in July he promised ‘a more significant return to normality by Christmas’, and then of course we were lined up for the ‘moonshots’, ‘game changers’ and ‘world beaters’. When did they arrive and when were they delivered? Hollow rhetoric.

And so it goes on. It is always hazardous to promise any return to normality, a wise and sage leader would have prepared for the worst, rather than merely hoping for the best. Johnson’s dithering has left us fatally exposed. He is an inveterate populist people-pleaser who avoids ­having to be clear about hard choices and tough trade-offs until he has no alternative. How does he decide which side of the bed to get out of in the morning?

So, what are the lessons we can take from Johnson’s national leadership of the pandemic response, for leadership in our startup ventures, and the challenges facing us in our own organisation situation as we look to wrangle decisions in what are hopefully the final months of the crisis?

Acknowledge people’s fears, then encourage resolve The famous lines of President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address in the midst of the Great Depression stand here: The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself. He followed that by pointing to the nation’s strengths in meeting the crisis: This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously; but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.

Your job as a startup leader is to provide both brutal honesty on the challenges you face and offer credible hope that collectively you and the team can meet the threats: determination, solidarity, strength, shared purpose. Not once has Johnson offered any genuine empathy, I see no emotional intelligence in his approach.

Recognise that most of your team are currently anxious about their health, personal finances and their jobs. Explain that you understand how scary things appear but working together you will weather the storm. Inspire your team with the words of the Reverend William Sloane Coffin: Courage is a crucial virtue. Will we be scared to death, or scared into life?

Don’t sugar-coat A common pitfall that leaders must avoid is communication that lacks honesty and consistency: discrepancies will emerge rapidly. Conflicting messages – such as Johnson’s initial statement on her immunity – simply add to feelings of confusion and distrust.

For this reason, you should avoid a paternalistic style of children need to be shielded from bad news, and instead treat your team as the adults they are. Level with your folks that uncertainty exists. Without that openness, they can quickly sense deception, reducing your credibility.

To successfully navigate crisis, effective leaders are comfortable with ambiguity, recognising that they do not have a crisis playbook. Instead, they commit themselves to navigating day-to-day through the turbulence, adjusting, improvising, and re-directing as the situation changes and new information emerges. Courageous leaders also understand they will get things wrong. But they tell the undiluted truth.

Clarity in everything you say Describe the bad news, its impact and your decision clearly. Be careful not to vacillate or leave things unsaid. Avoid making confusing, loose statements. Choose your words carefully, avoid ambiguity, and be consistent. Describe the decision, what it means and what the next steps are. You don’t need to be blunt but be candid, show that you understand the situation from your team’s perspective. You owe it to your people to be clear on the rationale for a decision, even if it is unpopular and unpleasant.

When it comes to asking your team to take the action, judge how much you can influence through persuasion, or if you need to cross over into a firmer more direct ‘show and tell’ style – a choice that can backfire if it not taken with caution. The initial messaging should be delivered quickly, to avoid other contrasting narratives filling the vacuum. Simply, offer an explanation of what is happening, offer guidance, instil hope, show empathy. Taken together, these suggest that leaders are in control.

Make it an open conversation about the future Too often today leaders relay unpopular decisions via email, without the chance for people to ask questions and respond. The best way to help people understand bad news and unpopular decisions is to create a real conversation. That doesn’t mean sharing the decision and then simply asking for questions; it means creating time and space and encouraging a genuine two-way conversation.

When you help people see the future, you help them process their anxiety and see the pathway to the future. People want their leader to engage them with compassion and an understanding of how the situation is impacting them, and what the future could hold, even though you don’t know everything about the present situation. It is a difficult balancing act – paint the picture of the positive future, but don’t dismiss the challenges of getting there.

Too many leaders avoid making the tough calls, they self-justify reasons for putting off difficult decisions, and the delay often does far more damage than whatever fallout they were trying to avoid. In fact, hard decisions often get more complicated when they’re deferred.

The real issue is that many leaders don’t want to disappoint their people or feel they are adding to their stress. But this is a missed an opportunity to help your team build resilience in the face of a tough challenge. Instead of using a communication event as a catalyst to rally together and find solutions, they feel let down, confused by their leader’s deceit. Instead, show your team a piece of you – be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home from work – make it personal, tell them how you are feeling personally, and they will trust, respect and believe you. They want to feel you are standing shoulder to shoulder.

It’s about ‘doing right’ not ‘looking right’ For leaders who struggle with the ambiguity that comes with difficult decisions, the fear of being wrong can be all consuming. Often, they try to seek more certainty by waiting for more data, but more often than not this masks the real issue – that many leaders are concerned about their self-image and fear looking stupid.

The reality is making judgement calls, being decisive and plotting a course of action in the face of incomplete data is leadership. Don’t seek to avoid mistakes at all costs when ‘do something, now’ is the right course of action. Further, if you end up backing yourself into a corner where you have fewer options and less time, you have to make a sub-optimal decision anyway. You look more incompetent than had you made the best decision possible with limited data – it’s about doing right, not looking right.

As a startup leader, how you make hard calls and how you communicate them shapes your organisation’s culture. Whatever temporary pain you personally and the organisation might incur from making a necessary but unpopular decision, should pale in comparison to the precedent you set about making your mark as a leader and doing the right thing.

The quote from Rahm Emanuel remains: step up to shape the agenda and seize the moment to define yourself as a leader in your startup. Great crisis leaders need to be both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, having both blunt and empathetic approach with different faces at different moments, but present your true self without fake at all times. Be sure to engage in a wiser internal monologue than Johnson obviously has with himself to understand your personal impact.

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