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Leading Through Crisis

By John C. Maxwell | April 26, 2013
Leading Through Crisis

Recent events in Boston, MA and West, TX have reminded us of a stark reality: we cannot escape crisis situations. Although unable to avoid them, we can learn to lead people through them. In fact, dark, difficult times may be the moments when leadership is needed the most.

While very few of us will ever be responsible to lead in the aftermath of a large-scale catastrophe, we all encounter times of intense difficulty within our organizations. By nature, a crisis urgently demands attention, and yet it can be difficult to know how to respond to sudden adversity. My hope is that this lesson equips you to lead others with poise and confidence through the storms of life. 


1) Discover and define the real problem

As Max De Pree noted, “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” Leaders must wade into the mire in order to learn precisely what has happened and to make sense of current conditions.

2) Act quickly

3) Provide reassurance

The place to handle a crisis is not from behind a desk but in front of the people. A leader’s visible presence during times of crisis inspires confidence and gives others a sense of security. Certainly, the ability of leaders to control their own emotions is paramount during crisis. In addition, preparation is key. Obviously, some crises are completely unforeseeable. Still, organizations can drawn up strategy plans in anticipation of an emergency. Companies with an emergency plan in place are far better positioned to handle a sudden crisis than those in which the leaders must operate on the fly.    

4) Simplify the situation

In times of crisis emotions run high and circumstances appear overwhelming. To make clear-headed decisions, a leader has to step back from events to determine the aspects of a situation that are beyond repair and to identify the main issues at stake moving forward. During a crisis, I make a point to withdraw from everything momentarily to list out my top concerns. I then assemble my core leadership team, gather their input, and amend the list accordingly. Putting the main issues on paper helps me to wrap my mind around the crisis and to stay focused amid chaos. 

5) Enlist support of influencers

In every organization, a small group of people holds the majority of influence. During a crisis, devote extra attention to making sure key influencers are on board with your plan to handle the crisis.

6) Decide to take action one step at a time

In crisis, conditions are in a state of flux. For this reason, plans extending too far into the future are doomed to failure. When confronting a rapidly changing situation, it’s wise to concentrate on the near-term. Focus on making the next step, let the dust settle, and then reevaluate the situation.

7) Do what is right and not what is easiest

Difficult problems seldom have simple solutions. Refuse to cut corners or to lower your ethical standards to make the situation easier. Instead, hold to your convictions and put the needs of your people ahead of your personal comfort and convenience.

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