The Two Roles Leaders Must Play in a Crisis

Great crisis captains need to lead both in the spotlight and behind the scenes.

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The coronavirus pandemic has already proved to be a litmus test of leadership as organizations around the world fight for their survival under unprecedented circumstances. In such dire straits, managing is in many ways dramatic — that is, it shares the qualities of onstage drama. As sociologist Erving Goffman put it, crisis managers need to present different faces at different times.

We often expect leaders to perform in predefined ways: Chief executives should be courageous, for example, and financial controllers conservative. Disaster managers, though, must be sufficiently flexible to don myriad masks, depending on the situation. We must, for instance, be humble with those who expect humility, and tough with those who expect toughness. Or, in other words, we must conform to expectations or risk backlash.

Great crisis captains need to play two main parts: the front-stage and back-stage roles of leadership. In the front-stage spotlight, leaders inspire and assure their teams, sending a message of hope and sharing their vision with the organization. They also show empathy and public commitment. These leaders are simultaneously kind and humble, showing the caring side of their personality.

All of these qualities must be combined with the back-stage role, in which leaders take a blunt and realistic approach to the serious threats at hand. Behind the scenes, leaders gather information and expertise, share facts, and dive deeply into processes — whether financial, technological, or human — to adapt and follow through on their plans. Such leaders are smart and confident, displaying the daring side of their personality.

It’s essential that leaders present their true selves without being fake. Those who play the role in a false or insecure way risk shredding their credibility because observers will sense the dishonesty and feel insulted. The common characteristics of great crisis leaders are a robust stress management capability, abundant resilience, networking prowess, vast social capital, a strong commitment to inclusivity, and a cool head when others overreact. History is filled with examples of versatile leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who got this balance right.

Facing their own existential threats, how can today’s bosses play both the front- and back-stage roles of leadership? How can they strike the right balance between caring and daring?

Acknowledge the crisis in a serious way. Confronting the tough truth of your situation is essential to overcoming it. Optimism will spur you to action, but realism guards against naivete and crushing disappointment. Give your audience the raw truth so they can prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

This balance reflects the Stockdale Paradox, a seemingly contradictory concept crystallized by Jim Collins’s 2001 book Good to Great. The concept is based on James Stockdale, a former U.S. Navy vice admiral who was a prisoner of war for seven years in Vietnam. The idea is that you must balance realism with optimism. Great crisis leaders are aware of what they cannot control, and by accepting this, they gain agility. The worst thing leaders can do in a crisis is be overly optimistic and overconfident, because when things go south, they will be taken by surprise.

Crisis leaders also have to accept that luck or circumstance may play a role in their success and admit this rather than claiming complete credit for every victory. Humility is, after all, vital to rallying an organization behind a strategy. For example, after American Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower led Allied troops to victory in the D-Day landings in France during World War II, he publicly acknowledged that the weather played a crucial role in his success. Without a full moon to light up obstacles, a low tide to spotlight underwater defenses, and light winds for plain sailing, victory would have been unlikely, if not impossible.

Embrace the crisis as a team. Front- and back-stage leaders are members of and draw on many networks, acting as both a hub and a bridge for knowledge to flow. They collect expertise and have enormous social capital that allows them to pick up the phone and call in favors whenever necessary. The caveat is that they need to have built this social capital before a crisis.

They can also converse effectively with a wide array of people, regardless of their rank or socioeconomic status. They understand all of their stakeholders. An effective hotel manager, for instance, would draw on insight from both the laundry room and the boardroom to truly understand their organization and build a sense of community, which is a very special skill. Great crisis leaders are inclusive, embodying and conveying the values of the organization to inspire loyalty and generate the best ideas.

Take, for example, Naohiro Masuda, superintendent at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant, the sister site of Japan’s Daiichi plant that was rocked by reactor explosions and core meltdowns in the wake of a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Masuda managed to spare Daini a similar fate, in part by galvanizing his team. He did this through a process called sensemaking, whereby the team reviewed and communicated information so everyone could collectively adapt to the unfolding situation. Essentially, sensemaking is when people adapt their behavior in response to understanding and experience. In teams, people can share information and collectively adapt.

Creating this sense of trust, community, and hope was partly how Masuda was able to persuade groups of workers to essentially risk their lives in surveying the damage to reactor units. Only later did he have time to come up with a comprehensive strategy and a list of the resources needed to execute it. The Daini plant went through the crisis without an explosion or a meltdown. Masuda is an unsung hero.

Explain why and how you made decisions. The back-stage role of crisis leadership involves execution of a strategy, the hard work behind the scenes. But in order for their decisions to be endorsed, leaders also must convey their reasoning to the entire organization. Transparency is key because emotions run high in a crisis.

For instance, Winston Churchill, Britain’s beloved wartime leader, was an excellent orator who rallied a divided nation facing the Nazis. He communicated with striking humility, sharing rich details of battles, and he vividly discussed expected offensives while offering stark warnings that “the whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us” when Hitler amassed forces close by in France. Churchill’s realism served as his justification for choosing to continue on with war when Britain faced an uncertain outcome and he was under pressure to negotiate a surrender.

Clearly, Churchill did not mince his words or downplay the risks. But this realism was tempered with optimism and defiance, which established a close bond between him and his countrymen by winning their respect and trust. His approval ratings were high throughout World War II. To this day, Churchill is widely admired for being one of the greatest crisis leaders in history.

Measure and adapt your strategies. Fantastic leaders debrief and analyze what has happened and, as a crisis unfolds, gauge their success and adapt their strategies. Leaders should stay true to their nonnegotiable values — such as accountability, credibility, integrity, humility, and kindness — which can be thought of as a compass guiding their mission. Strategy, on the other hand, is like a GPS that needs to be adjusted constantly in order to reach the final destination.

We derive our values from our surroundings, upbringing, and culture, and they rarely change throughout our lives. It’s important that our values are not compromised in a crisis because they act as a guiding star that will help us keep a cool head amid chaos. In such uncertain times, leaders who panic and become defensive can be too rigid when it comes to strategy. This is a mistake; crises unfold so quickly that strategies must be tweaked on a daily — even hourly — basis. There is a striking parallel between great crisis leaders and parents, who must stay firm on values and principles while still giving their children space to develop — a very delicate balance.

The way to achieve agility is to outsource some of the strategy development process by bringing in perspectives from your teams. This reflects the sensemaking process that can be and has been highly effective in crises.

Ultimately, the success of front-stage and back-stage leadership can be measured by how well a leader can mobilize resources across an organization, the commitment of stakeholders to the leader’s strategy and vision, and the leader’s sensitivity to threats and opportunities after the emergency abates. Front- and back-stage leaders should come out of a crisis in better shape than before, with abundant credibility and admiration.

When crises first strike, people tend to react based on reflex, reverting to what they have been trained to do. With a framework for front- and back-stage leadership, managers will have a better chance of dealing with the current COVID-19 fallout and the next crisis to come. The keys will be to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, confront the crisis as a community, communicate why and how you make choices, and benchmark your success while adapting your strategies.

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