Leadership in a crisis

David Fox
By David Fox | 13 August 2020
David Fox

David Fox, CEO, Ogilvy

The good leaders I’ve met in my career have the ability to switch between peace time leadership and war time leadership. The great leaders I’ve met know exactly when the time is right to make that switch. Go too early and you’ll panic your people - go too late and you will be seen as ineffective, and erode credibility.

Real leaders earn their stripes when a threat arrives and all best laid plans and strategies are out the window and they have to react quickly. What do you do?

The first thing I always do is turn to Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway, aka Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge, who used three simple words when you find yourself in a crisis.

ADAPT – IMPROVISE – OVERCOME

When a crisis hits, it’s about how fast you can comprehend the threat and adapt the business. This is where your ongoing hard work around culture comes home to roost - or not. A weak company culture will crumble, and it’s every person for themselves. A strong culture will galvanise your people under the pressure and everyone will do what’s right for the greater good – not themselves. My advice has always been that if you work hardest on your culture every day, it will repay you with interest when a crisis hits. A strong culture will adapt much faster than a weak one because people will listen and trust you as you take them into unchartered waters.

Always remember that adapting is about letting go, which is sometimes hard but you must have the self-awareness to make it happen and fast.

Improvised ways of working need to be executed even if only 80% there – don’t wait for things to be perfect, just do it and refine as you go. Improvise the rhythm of your company, up the rate of communications and over communicate relevant information– it will make people feel safe. People will look to you for any signs of panic or hesitation. Believe in what you’re doing and believe in your people to do what’s right and you have a great chance of improvising within and around your business rapidly.

Once the business gets used to its new operating rhythm you will find people not only overcoming the situation, but seeing positives as result. It’s surprising how many positives you find if you look for them, such as better communication between teams and offices thanks to forced behaviour change to technology. Once silver linings have been recognised you are then officially shifting into a new world for your business. Crises come and go however your company, people and culture will be stronger when you get to the other side – it just doesn’t feel like that when you’re in the eye of the storm.

Like most things in life keeping things simple is the key to tackle any unexpected crisis. In saying that, it’s the work you do before the crisis, the focus on culture, empathy and human care that will give you the solid platform and credibility when you’re neck deep in it and you’re asking your people to do things that makes them feel uncomfortable.

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