Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Leading Through Uncertainty And Change

© AdobeStock
The military’s collaborative planning process creates a shared information environment that enables rapid adjustments during changing circumstances. Here’s how you can use it to increase agility and stay competitive.

Technological change is accelerating exponentially. Innovations in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering, just to name a few, are expanding the frontiers of what we previously thought was possible. Enabling the speed of innovation are advances in information technology, which are expanding the boundaries of what we previously thought was knowable.[i]

Ninety percent of the data in the world today was created in the last two years. Moreover, the size of the digital universe continues to double every two years.[ii] You have access to more information on your cell phone than previous generations could accumulate in a lifetime. Yet the ability to convert the vast volume and velocity of today’s information flow into actionable knowledge seems more challenging than ever.

The magnitude and rate of change in today’s world are driving unprecedented levels of complexity and uncertainty into organizational operating environments. As a result, one of the most important questions leaders of high-performing teams must ask themselves is, “How can we develop the agility required to maintain a competitive advantage in the face of such rapidly changing complexity and uncertainty?”

Leading Through Uncertainty

When I take a step back and think about the nature of uncertainty, I find it amusing to consider the perspectives of three successful leaders in recent history who had very different backgrounds and opinions on the topic. Yogi Berra, All-Star catcher for the New York Yankees from 1946-1963 and one of America’s most beloved “philosophers” famously stated, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”[iii] Alan Kay, who was an Advanced Technology Group Fellow with Apple from 1984 to 1997 said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”[iv] And General Dwight D. Eisenhower often said that, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”[v]

As the architect of one of the most complex and successful military operations in history—the invasion of Normandy (codenamed Operation Overlord) on “D-Day” during World War II which resulted in the eventual defeat of Hitler’s Nazi German regime—General Eisenhower was intimately familiar with the military adage that, “No plan survives contact with the enemy” because the enemy gets a vote.[vi] But he also knew that collaborative planning is the foundation for agility, because it creates a common operating baseline in a shared information environment that enables rapid adjustments during changing circumstances in order to maintain a competitive advantage.

In 1997, building on General Eisenhower’s lessons about collaborative planning, the U.S. Army developed its current seven-step Military Decision-Making Process.[vii] It was designed to respond to the “VUCA” (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) environment, and its purpose is to help teams plan for success in exceptionally dynamic environments.

I’ve had the opportunity to share an adaptation of the process with leaders and teams operating in VUCA environments across a wide range of industries outside the military. Because it has proven valuable to many of them, I want to share it with you. I call it the Collaborative Planning Process, and I believe it can be a valuable tool in your leadership toolbox to help you sharpen your focus when your team is challenged with high degrees of uncertainty.

1. Leader’s Guidance. The first step involves you providing your high-level leader’s guidance to your team. Think about this in terms of the mission you need to accomplish. Then define the mission clearly and succinctly in three parts: (1) what needs to be accomplished (i.e., the task), (2) why it’s important (i.e., the purpose), and (3) what success looks like (i.e., the desired end-state).

For example, let’s say a recent strategy review in your organization has highlighted a disproportionate concentration of services and resources in a particular sector that has been identified as having a moderate-to-high probability of disruption within the next three years. Because your team’s work is currently focused in this area, you want to explore options for diversifying in order to manage the risk and maintain a competitive advantage.

You spend some time developing your high-level leader’s guidance. Then you get your team together to share it with them. Starting with the background you explain, “Team, senior leadership just finished a strategy review that shows we may be overconcentrating services and resources in our sector. This creates a risk for us because if there is a future disruption, which is likely, it could force us to downsize. So I need your help.”

Then you shift to articulating the mission, beginning with the task and purpose. “We need to diversify our services into other areas in order to manage the risk of a potential disruption in our sector.” And finally, you paint a picture of the end-state. “If we are successful, within two years we will be serving a portfolio of sectors with the same commitment to excellence that got us where we are today, and we will be poised for sustained growth over time despite a potential downturn in any individual sector.”

Next you select a subset of your team to form a Collaborative Planning Team (CPT) and empower them to tackle the issue. You might start with volunteers. Ultimately though, you need to ensure that the right people are in the room so that the CPT has adequate expertise to consider all likely facets of the solution. Now that you’ve clearly defined the “what” and identified your planning team, it’s time for you to step away and let them get to work developing options that they can present to you later regarding the “how.” Before you go, you remind them of three things that will be critical in generating the best answer: collecting all of the relevant data and facts, encouraging rigorous debate, and remaining tuned in to the strategic context.

2. Mission Analysis. Your CPT then launches into step two—mission analysis. As a group they discuss and analyze what factors could affect the mission. They craft their assessment using the acrostic “CRAFT” to consider competition, available resources, atmospherics (e.g., social, cultural, political, regulatory, etc.), additional functions (i.e., expertise) you might need as you pursue your objective, and time factors, plus any other unique considerations that could impact mission accomplishment.

Mission analysis is the most commonly overlooked step in effective planning. Most of us want to jump right to solutions. However, if you don’t fully understand important aspects of your mission, you are likely to arrive at a solution that misses the mark. In other words, as Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.”[viii]

3. Course of Action (COA) Development. Once your team has a grasp of the key aspects of your mission, they move to step three—COA development. In order to push the depth and breadth of their thinking, you’ve asked them to develop three separate COAs that are feasible and distinguishable, meaning that they are all practically doable and different.

Your planning team begins by brainstorming to identify three high-level concepts of operation that are all feasible and distinguishable. Next, for each COA they break down the concept of operation into discreet steps. Then, for each step they define “who does what when.” This forms the basis for a cross-functional, task-organized team that would be required to execute the COA.

4. Contingency Planning. Since your team has heard you occasionally remind them that, “No plan survives contact with customers, competition, or chance,” they now turn their focus to step four—contingency planning. For each COA they ask each other, “What could go wrong?” in order to capture a list of key risks. Next they ask, “What could go unexpectedly well?” and then create a list of potential opportunities. Then they cluster similar answers into themes and plot them on a simple four-quadrant graph like the one below.

For each risk and opportunity that lands in the top right quadrant (high probability of occurrence and high impact), the CPT develops a contingency plan. Each plan answers two questions. First, “How will we know if the risk or opportunity is developing?” In other words, what critical information will you need, and how will you get it? The second question is, “What will we do about it?” That is, what steps will form your contingency response to mitigate the risk or capitalize on the opportunity?

Now it’s time for your Collaborative Planning Team to brief you on their mission analysis, courses of action, and contingency plans so that you can make a decision on how to move forward. How long should this process take up until this point? It depends on the complexity of the challenge, the urgency of the issue, and the bandwidth of your team. To put this into perspective, it took General Eisenhower and his staff six months to plan Operation Overlord.[ix] Granted, he had a large staff and a sense of urgency driven by the future of the free world hanging in the balance, but the challenge was also enormously complex. As a rule of thumb, unless your mission is winning World War III, we’re probably talking days or weeks rather than months.

5. Decision. Step five is where you make your decision regarding how your team will accomplish the mission that you articulated in your leader’s guidance in step one. Your planning team describes each course of action along with the mission analysis behind them, in addition to the contingency plans associated with each. Furthermore, they provide an assessment of pros and cons for each COA. You are impressed by the innovative thinking, creativity, and rigor behind each option. You ask questions throughout each brief to help clarify key considerations. The team’s answers clearly indicate that they have done their homework and considered each option from all relevant angles. Now it’s time for you to make a decision. But how do you decide?

Effective decision-making boils down to judgment. In a Harvard Business Review article titled, “The Elements of Good Judgment,” Andrew Likierman describes six components of good judgment: learning, trust, experience, detachment, options, and delivery. With respect to learning, leaders with good judgment tend to be good readers and listeners. Regarding trust, they intentionally draw on the diverse perspectives and experiences of others. They combine these factors with their own experience, and try to detach themselves emotionally from the issue in order to minimize bias. They question aspects of the options being offered, and finally factor in the feasibility of being able to deliver on the decision.[x]

Most of these elements are already baked into the Collaborative Planning Process, including asking your planning team to develop feasible and distinguishable COAs, drawing on diverse perspectives and expertise to develop them, and carefully listening to your team explain each COA while leveraging your own personal and professional experience (which has probably been honed through reading) to ask clarifying questions. If you can also listen objectively and minimize any personal bias, then you’ve got them all covered.

But what if you’ve done all of this and the right decision still isn’t clear to you? Making good decisions in an environment of complexity and ambiguity is one of the main reasons why leadership is so hard. When you find yourself in this situation, I’ve found it helpful to run the decision through four filters: ask probing questions, ask yourself three key questions, trust your instinct, and verify the logic.

Decision Filter #1: Ask Probing Questions

The first filter is asking tough, pointed questions until the right decision becomes clear. Often the complexity and ambiguity surrounding a difficult decision is caused by not having an integrated, fused picture of what is really going on. If you are not getting clear, confident answers from your team, keep probing until you do. You don’t need to be a jerk about it, but you do need to be persistent. “I’m sorry to be such a pain, but help me understand  . . . ” can be an effective way to soften the questions. Many times an answer to one of your probing questions will eventually cause the light bulb to come on and you’ll have one of those, “Ahh, now I get it, thank you” moments which will be the key unlock for your decision.

But sometimes the light bulb still doesn’t come on, no matter how many questions you ask. I can tell you from personal experience that some of the worst decisions I made in my military career were a result of moving forward with a decision without being fully satisfied with the answers I was getting from my team. It takes courage and conviction to keep probing when it feels like there is something missing from the answers you are getting, but you can’t put your finger on it and you don’t want to be perceived as a jerk. Sadly, the times I felt like that and failed to persevere with tough questions almost always resulted in tougher challenges and deeper problems for our organization down the road.

Decision Filter #2: Ask Yourself Three Key Questions

When the light bulb doesn’t come on through the first filter of tough questions for your team, then what? I’ve found it helpful to run the decision through a second filter of three key questions for yourself: “Will this decision help accomplish our mission?” “Will it help take care of our people?” “And will it uphold our organizational values?” In other words, will it support your culture, people, and mission? If the answer to all three questions is “yes,” then I’ve almost always found it to be a good decision.

Decision Filter #3: Trust Your Instinct

But what if you are in the fortunate position of having to make a decision involving multiple options where the answer to all three questions is “yes” for all of the options? Then I recommend using a third filter which is sometimes referred to as “rule number one of leadership”—trust your instinct.

In his New York Times bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman describes how our intuition (the “fast thinking” part of our brain) can sometimes be more accurate than the logical and deliberate “slow thinking” part of our brain when it comes to judgment and decision-making. Many times this is a result of experience. Other times it’s that our unconscious mind can recognize patterns more quickly and accurately than through conscious calculations and reasoning. His main point is that these two parts or “systems” of our thinking, instinct and logic, work together to help us make decisions, and we should not underestimate the power of our “gut.”[xi]

Decision Filter #4: Verify the Logic

During his nuclear disarmament discussions with the Soviet Union leading up to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, Ronald Reagan often used the phrase, “Trust, but verify.”[xii] I think of this as the fourth filter for effective decision-making. Since our minds use both instinct and logic to make decisions, trust your instinct but verify it with logic.

To do this, I like to go through a deliberate decision-making checklist that I’ve developed over the years.

1. Is this a decision that I need to make now? Check.

2. Did I consider the strategic context, including realistic constraints? Check.

3. Did I get the right people with the right expertise in the room? Check.

4. Did I accurately frame the issue and encourage rigorous debate? Check.

5. Did I collect all of the relevant facts and consider all aspects of the issue? Check.

6. Did I identify and appropriately weigh the risks and opportunities? Check.

7. Do I feel enough conviction to be decisive and explain why I made the decision? Let’s talk more about this one.

As a quick review of where we are in the Collaborative Planning Process, recall from our example that your team’s services and resources are too concentrated in a particular sector, and you need to diversify into other areas in order to manage the risk of a potential disruption. In step one you issued your leader’s guidance to your planning team. In step two they conducted their mission analysis, and then in step three they developed three feasible and distinguishable courses of action. In step four your team developed contingency plans to address risks and opportunities associated with each course of action. And now in step five, you need to make a decision.

You’ve applied your best judgment and have run your decision through the four filters we just discussed, but you still don’t feel enough conviction to be decisive about any one of the three courses of action your team has presented. You’ve logically narrowed your decision down to COAs #1 and #3. But your instinct is that you like elements of each option. So you choose to combine those elements into a “hybrid” COA comprising what you believe are the best of each.

Now, both your heart and your mind are convinced that this is the best decision. You finally feel enough conviction to be decisive and explain why you made it. In order to help your team understand your thought process and the purpose behind your decision, you explain to them why you reached this conclusion. Then you ask your team to consolidate these hybrid elements into “the” plan, and now it’s time to execute.

6. Execution. Step six is executing your plan. This starts with confirming who needs to be on your execution team. Often it’s the CPT members since they were originally chosen based on their functional expertise, and they have the most situational awareness to the plan because they developed and analyzed it. But it doesn’t have to be. In the course of their collaborative planning, your team may have identified others who would be better suited for the execution team based on their functional expertise. Or perhaps you might choose different members based on geographical considerations. At a minimum, the execution team needs to include all of the individuals in the COA steps that define “who does what when,” in addition to the people who will be involved in executing potential contingency plans.

The key to successful execution is ensuring that it is decentralized, meaning each member of the team is empowered to perform their role and make real-time adjustments based on rapidly evolving conditions throughout your shared information environment. This requires each member of your execution team to clearly understand the plan and their role in it. A lack of clearly defined and understood roles and responsibilities is the most common cause of mission failure. Clear, deliberate, and consistent communications throughout execution are the best way to avoid this, especially when conditions are rapidly changing.

7. Debrief. The seventh and final step is to debrief your planning and execution. We discussed the power of debriefing in chapter 3 when we talked about the concept of passion for excellence as it relates to mission focus. The point is that debriefs should concentrate on continuous improvement. Depending on the length of time in your execution window, you might want to debrief regularly throughout. Whatever frequency you decide, start every debrief by admitting your own mistakes as the leader. You’ll be amazed by how this will inspire the members of your team to acknowledge their mistakes. Focus on both planning and execution. Evaluate both process and performance. Measure objectives versus outcomes. Remember the three key debrief questions—what happened, why, and how can we improve next time? Leave the “who” out of it. Finally, capture and codify lessons learned for continuous improvement.

In my experience, the Collaborative Planning Process can be an extremely effective tool to help you lead your team through uncertainty by creating a common operating baseline in a shared information environment that can enable rapid adjustments during changing circumstances to maintain a competitive advantage. But to implement it effectively, remember the adage that “no plan survives contact” because others (competition, customers, chance, etc.) each get a vote. As a result, you must embrace the inevitability that operational changes will be required to successfully navigate toward your objective.

Leading Operational Change

Some operational changes can be anticipated through contingency planning like we just discussed in step four of the Collaborative Planning Process. But since none of us has a crystal ball and it’s impossible to proactively anticipate every problem that could occur, it is also helpful to have a rapid process for reactive problem-solving. I’ve found the process below helpful in these situations.[xiii]

1. Define the problem. The first step is to define the problem and make sure your problem-solving team is fully aligned on the answer to the question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” You should be able to articulate this clearly and succinctly.

2. Dissect the problem. Step two is to dissect the problem into potential root causes so that you can identify the key issues. One way to “pull the problem apart” is to create an “issue tree.” You can do this by writing your problem statement on the left side of a whiteboard, and then create branches from left to right identifying root issues, and then sub issues, etc.

3. Prioritize key issues. Once you’ve identified the key issues, step three is to prioritize them. Ask yourself, “Which issues seem most critical, and what questions do we need to answer in order to run these issues to ground?”

4. Plan your research. Step four is to plan your research in order to answer the critical questions identified in step three. Consider the amount of time and resources you have available, and develop a plan that focuses on efficiency.

5. Conduct research and analysis. Step five is to do the research that you’ve just planned and analyze what you find. Maybe your team can divide and conquer, and then assemble to discuss findings. Whatever you do, remember the 80-20 rule that we discussed in the previous chapter regarding prioritization, and strive for the 80 percent answer whenever practical. Resist the temptation to get trapped in “paralysis through analysis.”

6. Synthesize your findings. Step six is to synthesize your findings so you can communicate a digestible solution to the decision-maker. If you are the decision-maker, ensure that your team develops a coherent and concise message for communicating the recommendation. The key question from all of your research is, “What’s the ‘so what’?” In other words, what practical actions are implied by the findings so you can answer the question, “What should we do to solve the problem?”

I’ve often found this step to be the hardest. When faced with a basic problem like, “I need to know what time it is,” many teams are inclined to respond by describing in detail how to build a watch. One technique that can help you synthesize your findings is a pyramid structure. Start with a foundation of common themes from the data and facts derived from your research. Then distill those upward into pillars of core logic supporting how to solve the problem. Finally, synthesize your core logic into a governing thought that clearly articulates your recommended solution.

7. Propose your solution. The final step is to propose your solution to the decision-maker by answering the question, “What should we do to solve the problem?” You’ve pulled the problem apart, analyzed the critical issues, and put the problem back together in a solvable way. Now it’s time to present your recommendation. Focus on clarity and impact. Keep in mind that most decision-makers are busy with a lot on their plates, so avoid the temptation to “build a watch” like we just discussed. Instead, get right to the point by starting with your governing thought at the top of your pyramid, and work down from there based on questions that arise from the decision-maker.

So far we’ve talked about operational changes that you may need to make as a leader in the face of uncertainty. Proactively, you can leverage the concept of contingency planning within the Collaborative Planning Process for changes that can be anticipated. For unanticipated problems, you can leverage the Problem-Solving Process that we just discussed to help you navigate unplanned operational changes. However, there will be other times when changes will need to occur at the strategic level, which can require innovation and organizational change. Some of the most common reasons driving the need for organizations to innovate and change include changes among customers, technology, the economy, politics, and your organizational dynamics.[xiv]

Leading Organizational Change

Change management guru John Kotter, a former leadership professor at Harvard Business School and author of the New York Times bestselling book, Leading Change says, “Perhaps the greatest challenge business leaders face today is how to stay competitive amid constant turbulence and disruption.” Yet his research shows that most change efforts fail to achieve their intended result.[xv] History is replete with examples of well-known companies that were once leaders in their respective industries, but failed to keep up with the speed of change. So how can you prevent your team from being left behind? More specifically, how do you effectively lead innovation and change within your organization?

First, it’s important to understand some of the primary inhibitors to innovation and organizational change. Comfort with the status quo, resource constraints, unmotivated employees, opposition from influential stakeholders, and competing interests or priorities are common drivers.[xvi]

Acknowledging these common inhibitors, next consider how to foster an innovative culture (remember the first dimension of our leadership triad). Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, asserts that successful innovation is less about personality, and more about process. It is rarely an “aha” moment. Usually innovation is the result of a painful, disciplined process underpinned by candid collaboration.[xvii] Peter Drucker, whom many have called “the founder of modern management,” describes innovation as a purposeful search for new opportunities through the focused application of knowledge, hard work, and lessons learned from failure.[xviii]

In their book, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback assert that, “Innovation is a team sport” that almost always results from “multiple hands, not the genius of some solitary inventor.” Moreover, they describe the essence of leading innovation as “setting the stage” so that others can perform on it.[xix]

The Collective Genius authors also point out that innovation thrives in an environment characterized by diversity of thought, conflicting ideas, patience to test and learn from different approaches, and courage to integrate new possibilities. With this in mind, an effective leader can foster an innovative culture by creating a sense of community within their team where members are connected through a common purpose, shared values, and rules of engagement or behavioral guidelines.[xx] Think back to the concept of your leader’s intent, and consider how it might help you connect this type of culture to your mission in the context of a rapidly changing operating environment.

The bottom line is that implementing new ways of doing business requires transformational leadership. As you adjust and adapt your vision to keep up with a dynamic, rapidly-changing environment, you will need to assess your team’s mission with a frequency that is correlated to the speed of change. Otherwise you will get stuck in the status quo, and your competitive advantage will begin to erode.

As you adjust your mission, you will need to connect your people to it by re-tuning how you articulate, reinforce, and illuminate the new mission. You’ll also need to adjust your leader’s intent to connect your culture to the new mission. And you may also need to emphasize an innovative mindset during coaching and developing sessions with your people, in order to help them embrace the culture of change.

Once you’ve established a culture that can embrace change, you can get down to the business of creating and sustaining change.  In Leading Change, John Kotter describes some key reasons why change efforts fail based on his research. They include complacency, lack of vision and guidance, obstacles, lack of momentum, and lack of follow-through.[xxi] Through my own personal experience with transformations in a number of organizations across a range of industries, I’ve learned seven important steps for creating and sustaining organizational change.

1. Create a compelling case for change. Identify a “burning platform” for your team so they can embrace the idea that you can’t do nothing and must do something.

2. Initiate strategic communication. It should come from top leadership, include the purpose and importance of the effort, and paint a picture of what success looks like. This is your change vision. Ensure it is clear and concise, and that it cascades throughout the organization.

3. Recruit key influencers. Actively pursue and persuade influential people within your organization to join your transformation team. Engage with them to help you collaboratively develop a strategy to achieve the vision. This will help generate top-down buy-in.

4. Engage line-level stakeholders. Identify key stakeholders on the front lines. Explain the importance of effort, and what’s in it for them. This will help generate grass-roots support by creating front-line champions.

5. Celebrate quick wins. This will generate momentum by reinforcing your vision among key influencers, motivating front-line champions, and helping to get skeptics on board.

6. Implement a high-visibility reporting cadence. Progress should be measured and briefed to top leadership on a frequent basis. This will drive urgency and accountability into the effort, and help get resisters on board.

7. Embed results in systems and culture. This is the key to long-term sustainability. Changes can be codified in policy and processes. They can also be reflected in your leader’s intent where you connect your culture to your mission. Most importantly, they should be role-modeled by leaders at all levels so that the change will stick.

Leading Through a Crisis

There is one final topic we need to cover about leading through uncertainty and change before we “land the plane” in this chapter. Regardless of how much you plan and how well you lead, you will inevitably encounter crises. I’ve encountered more than I’d like to remember. Nevertheless, I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way about crisis leadership. Some of them I’ve learned the hard way. Others I’ve learned through more favorable outcomes. To help spare you the former and so that you can experience more of the latter, here are five things to think about the next time you find yourself leading your team through a crisis.

1. Rapidly analyze the situation. Huddle with your senior leadership team, including legal and public relations. Also bring into the conversation anyone who has a good grasp of the facts surrounding the crisis. Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions or prematurely place blame. Focus on what happened given what you currently know, what the implications and impacts are for people within and external to your organization, and what immediate actions you can take to help stem the crisis and mitigate further damage. Once aligned, initiate the immediate actions.

2. Shape your communications. Focus on honesty and empathy. The key is to develop trust with people inside and outside your organization by taking responsibility, telling the truth, and acknowledging the emotional challenges people are experiencing as a result of the crisis. Develop a concise message that describes what happened, empathetically acknowledges the impact, and explains what you are doing about it. Do all of this quickly so you can drive the narrative, rather than react to it. Remember that bad news rarely, if ever, gets better with time.

3. Exercise visible leadership. Step into the spotlight and be ready to take the heat for your team. This is far from comfortable, but it’s one of the most important things you’ll ever do as a leader. Remember our discussion about composure as it relates to your culture in chapter 1? This is your chance to let your true character shine in the face of real adversity. Start by sharing your message with your team and offer them the opportunity to ask questions. Instruct them to refer any media inquiries to your senior leadership team, because your next step is to deliver the same message to people outside your organization through a press release, press conference, video interview, social media, and/or other appropriate communication channels. Conclude by announcing that you’ve commenced an investigation (we’ll talk about this in a second), and will update everyone as you learn more. Throughout this entire process, keep reminding yourself that accountability and transparency are your keys to developing trust.

4. Create a crisis action team. Carefully consider the expertise needed based on the nature of the crisis, and ensure they have adequate information flow to create a data-driven, fact-based common operating picture. Use the Collaborative Planning Process that we previously discussed in this chapter to rapidly generate potential courses of action. Begin by assessing the results of your immediate actions, and adjust next steps accordingly. Accelerate and iterate your COA decision cycle to stay ahead of the crisis, and make sure you have a plan to stay ahead of the media.

5. Initiate an investigation. As soon as the crisis begins to stabilize, commence an investigation. Depending on the nature of the crisis, the investigation can be conducted formally or informally by an internal or external body. When deciding among these options, weigh the importance of resource intensity and speed versus the perception of objectivity and integrity. For example, an informal investigation conducted internally might be the fastest way to generate insights, but this may also increase the risk of cover-up allegations. On the other hand, a formal investigation by an external third party may be more thorough and objective, but this could also result in delayed insights, making it harder for you to stay ahead of the media. Consider balancing these risks by launching an informal, internal investigation to generate rapid initial insights, followed immediately by a formal, external investigation. Thoughtfully assess the expertise you need on the investigating team in order to ensure rigor and accuracy in the findings. Results of the investigation should address, at a minimum, two things: cause(s), and recommendations for how to prevent a similar crisis from occurring in the future. Use these findings to update your internal and external communications. Own your mistakes, vow to do better, and to put into place measures for continuous improvement within your organization.

Although we’ve talked a lot about uncertainty in this chapter, one thing is certain. You will face crises as a leader. While we’d like to avoid them, they’re unavoidable. I can’t tell you when they will happen or what they will look like, but I can tell you that spears will fly and it won’t be fun. It will feel lonely at the top, and you’ll understand more deeply the burden of leadership. Perhaps you’ve been there. I know I have.

During times like these, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of Theodore Roosevelt’s words about “The Man in the Arena.”[xxii]

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I encourage you to see crises as crucible opportunities that can help hone you as a leader and prepare you for greater things to come. If leadership was easy, anyone could do it. But leadership is hard. It’s a marathon that requires intense determination and perseverance, especially during difficult times. There are plenty of people out there who can critique leaders during a crisis, but few who can actually lead with character, competence, and composure when the spears are flying.

Excerpted with permission from THE SUBSTANCE OF LEADERSHIP: A Practical Framework for Effectively Leading a High-Performing Team (Per Capita Publishing, September 21, 2021).

[i] Declan Butler, “Tomorrow’s Technological Change is Accelerating Today at an Unprecedented Speed and Could Create a World We Can Barely Begin to Imagine,” Nature, February 25, 2016,!/menu/main/topColumns/ topLeftColumn/pdf/530398a.pdf?origin=ppub.

[ii] IBM, “10 Key Marketing Trends for 2017,” IBM Marketing Cloud,; John Gantz and David Reinsel, “The Digital Universe in 2020,” IDC IVIEW, December 2012,

[iii] “The Perils of Prediction,” The Economist, May 31, 2007,; Nate Scott, “The 50 Greatest Yogi Berra Quotes,” USA Today, March 28, 2019,

[iv] “TED Speaker: Alan Kay——Educator and Computing Pioneer,” TED, March 2008,

[v] William Blair, “President Draws Planning Moral: Recalls Army Days to Show Value of Preparedness in Time of Crisis,” New York Times, November 15, 1957,

[vi] Helmuth von Moltke, quoted in Robert Heinl, Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1966), “Plans,” Kindle.

[vii] United States Army, Field Manual 101-5: Staff Organization and Operations (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 1997), .

[viii] Nate Scott, “The 50 Greatest Yogi Berra Quotes.”

[ix] National D-Day Memorial Foundation, “Preparation and Planning,”

[x] Andrew Likierman, “The Elements of Good Judgment,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2020.

[xi] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

[xii] Suzanne Massie, Trust, but Verify: Reagan, Russia, and Me (Blue Hill, ME: Maine Authors Publishing, 2013).

[xiii] Adapted from Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything, Charles Conn and Robert McLean (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2018) and “How to Master the Seven-Step Problem-Solving Process,” McKinsey & Company, 13 September 2019,

[xiv] William Craig, “Accepting Change is Vital to Your Company’s Growth,” Forbes,  November 13, 2017,

[xv] John Kotter, “Accelerate!,” Harvard Business Review, November, 2012; John Kotter, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1995; John Kotter, Leading Change (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

[xvi] W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, “Tipping Point Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, April 2003; Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, “The Real Reason People Won’t Change,” Harvard Business Review, November 2001.

[xvii] Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc. (New York: Random House, 2014), 85-128.

[xviii] Peter Drucker, “The Discipline of Innovation,” Harvard Business Review, August 2002.

[xix] Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), Introduction, Kindle.

[xx] Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, Lineback, Collective Genius, chap. 4-5.

[xxi] Kotter,  Leading Change, chap. 1.

[xxii] Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic and the Man in the Arena: Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910,” Kindle.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.