On March 25th Pope Francis delivered his traditional Palm Sunday address. His message has deep resonance for leaders at any level, of any age or circumstance.
What was his message? Be persistent and resist attempts to quash idealism. Speaking on the day after marches around the world in the wake of the deaths of 17 students in Florida, he advised the students to resist attempts to silence them.
In the aftermath of a crisis, people need an eloquent leader to step into the spotlight and provide beautiful, synoptic, memorable language. In so doing, the leader helps us focus and reminds us of our purpose. This is essential to any successful endeavor, regardless of the mission.
In some ways, a crisis is beneficial because it has a clarifying effect. What a leader says in the aftermath of an upheaval is more likely to be remembered, precisely because focus is heightened. A crisis also causes questioning of the status-quo, begging us to ask “how did we get here?”
Whether your crisis involves loss of life, reputation, share price, trust or all of these, there are a few things you should know if you are to use it as a pivot point.
“Curiosity allows people to learn in all circumstances and every modality.”
First, know you are in a crisis and understand the nature of it. Often people are so distracted by the immediate and manifest aspects of a crisis that they ignore systemic issues. Glossing over a crisis as an isolated incident, when it isn’t, serves only a short-term agenda. Leaders connect the dots, even when those around them don’t.
Second, act like you know the situation is serious. Defensive platitudes, denials or cover-ups all eventually fail. The best responses are full-throated and responsible. When bottles of Tylenol were poisoned, the company enacted an extreme response that stands to this day as an example of how to respond to a crisis and improve credibility at the same time.
Third, look into the depths. Carefully examine cause and remove people who interfere with the effort. The most valuable expertise is flexible, not fixed. Creativity, openness and integrative thinking are needed for insight and insight is critical to seeing what is beneath the surface.
Fourth, be curious. Strategic thinking, innovation and insight are born of breadth of knowledge and experience. Curiosity allows people to learn in all circumstances and every modality. It shows up as inquiry first and judgment after exploration, whether that is 30 seconds or three days.
The ability to use a crisis as a pivot point rests on both a mindset and behaviors that illuminate it, but these are not accidental. They may be instinctive in a few, exceptional leaders, but they can be adopted by anyone. The steps are a series of decisions. First, gather information broadly and with curiosity. Second, use discernment to reach conclusions. Third, communicate with clarity. Fourth, direct others to act in ways that are creative, constructive and inspired.
Pope Francis said, “There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible. Many ways to anesthetize them, to make them keep quiet, ask nothing, question nothing. There are many ways to sedate them, to keep them from getting involved, to make their dreams flat and dreary, petty and plaintive.”
Leaders have the power to quash or inspire. Often they douse the flames of creativity in the name of effectiveness, compliance or pragmatism. At least this is observable. What is more insidious and costly is the crushing power of inertia supported by a culture that is ossified and fearful. Changing that takes a leader who makes the decision to change and leads the way with words and action.