Crisis Leadership Is Not Sustainable

The challenge is to move beyond "brute force leadership" and build a team that utilizes the positive characteristics of leading in a crisis—but sets aside the dysfunction.

Some leadership teams are great at operating in a crisis regardless of how dysfunctional they might be normally. Day-to-day, these teams are out of sync—disagreements turn into petty battles, unit silos are reinforced, unhealthy coalitions are formed and individuals make commitments they have no intention of keeping. However, when faced with a significant crisis (often the result of their dysfunction), such as challenges with closing on a new acquisition, implementing an enterprise system or launching a new product, they embrace the challenge and don’t let dysfunction get in the way. These leadership teams get focused on what is most important, figure out what needs to be done and how to do it, and secure the resources and work the hours necessary to reach the goal.

One of our clients refers to this mode of operating as “brute force leadership”—”we just rise to the challenge and rally around a common goal and use our collective talents and experience to make progress.” So, if a leadership team is getting results why not just ignore the day-to-day dysfunction and tackle the big challenges with a brute force approach? Based on our experience and observation there are two big challenges with crisis leadership. The first is that, by its very nature, operating in crisis mode is physically and emotionally draining. For each new crisis, leadership teams have to create new processes, relearn how their teammates operate, and commit intense time and energy. Second, as organizations scale, the challenges that leadership teams face become more complex—more employees and vendors involved, more customers impacted and more dollars at stake.

If used as a normal way of operating, the risks of brute force leadership become too significant and the toll it takes on leadership teams and employees throughout an organization is too great. The challenge is to move beyond brute force and build a great leadership team that operationalizes the positive characteristics of leading in a crisis and sets aside the unproductive ones.

Let’s start with two extremely unproductive characteristics. First, avoiding tough conversations results in pushing the proverbial can down the road. Issues that could be resolved early on through debate and compromise are pushed to a tipping point where a decision has to be taken. Next, behaving as if time and use of resources come in unlimited quantities is perhaps one of the biggest contributors to burnout and turnover. Rather than coalescing around a plan of attack, brute force teams rely on their ability to react. Teams simply dig in and dedicate additional time and require employees to participate in their reactive, firefighting approaches.

Fortunately, some crisis management characteristics can be adopted to help build great leadership teams. First, as our client mentioned in the quote above, they “…rally around a common goal.” In our experience, great leadership teams move beyond mission and strategy and get clear on what the team needs to focus on for the next 6-12-24 months – i.e., reduction of customer concentration risk, merger integration, introduction of a new product. This focus on a specific common purpose gives leadership team members a strong sense of what work they need to do together and what work is simply part of their functional responsibility. Next, brute force leadership teams put personal issues aside, stay focused on what’s most important and recognize that to be successful they have to rely on the diverse talents and experience of each team member. Finally, effective crisis management requires team members to listen to each other and compromise. While team members might not enjoy this important skill at the time, they realize that it is required to push time sensitive, complex initiatives forward.

Unfortunately, these lessons don’t become common practice by simply naming them. There are foundational requirements that have to be put in place to help leadership teams become consistently great. Let’s begin with a few foundational relational requirements. Over time brute force leadership teams tend to chip away at the relational fibers among teammates. To start the hard work of strengthening these fibers each team member has to suspend judgement and evaluate the assumptions they are making about their teammates (i.e., “he doesn’t hold his unit accountable”; “she doesn’t work hard”; “he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks”). Assumptions are often wrong and are created based on how teammates see their colleagues behave rather than understanding their intentions and motivations. Suspending judgement also helps to repair trust as teammates begin to get to know each other on a deeper level. When this happens, trust begins to improve, which enables teams to challenge, debate and disagree more productively.

As progress is being made on the relational front and leadership teams are more comfortable challenging and disagreeing, they can begin to build an effective structural base. The following are two important structural elements that help teams become more consistent and less reactive. First, leadership teams have to engage in the sometimes difficult discussions about how to best integrate team member roles—who has the lead, how will information be shared, how are conflicts resolved. Productive role integration discussions can help squash the often incorrect assumptions team members make about each other. Next, to gain consistency and build an accountability foundation, great leadership teams need to establish behavioral expectations for how they will operate together. Principles that emerge from managing in a crisis might include: listen and compromise, receive feedback well, and resolve issues directly.

As their organization’s grow leadership teams that manage from crisis to crisis put their organizations at risk. While challenging, leadership teams can learn from the characteristics that make them successful in a crisis. Building these characteristics into their normal operations will help them avoid many crises and better prepare their organizations for the few that remain.