“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
– Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln would never have dreamed of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he understood crisis leadership and led through strength and grace. His wisdom is timeless and should guide us today.
Stress. Panic. Confusion. Our natural instinct as leaders is to comfort and reach out to others, to leverage our relational skills. The current pandemic has us off-balance, as we understand human contact accelerates the problem. The new norm is isolation – a proven detriment to healthy living, particularly for the elderly.
What can we do?
We understand the fundamentals – wash your hands and avoid public contact. However, these guidelines fall short of who we are as leaders. We are problem solvers, not fence sitters. History has proven that when a crisis strikes, we expect to be engaged and we expect strong leadership to show us the way.
Effective leaders step up to define reality through facts, action plans, and hope. They realize they can’t do it alone, so they bring in managers and experts to carry out what needs to be done. Momentum builds, resources appear, and together we are on the way toward a solution.
The reality is that we continue to suffer crisis after crisis – a cycle of disasters. What we have learned is that in each crisis there are plenty of managers, and few leaders. We admire the managers and need to identify better leaders.
Dan Heath in his new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, states that, “Most leaders, when preparing for disasters, focus their efforts on creating systems to manage the fallout. In other words, they attack the symptoms rather than the problem itself.”
Managers clean up after pandemics. Leaders prevent them.
We need a different leadership mindset. The threat of global health crises has been with us for years. We are blessed by having experts and managers who are determined to help us get out of this, until the next one. While the managers extinguish the problem, we need leaders asking why this happened.
The lessons from Lincoln – tell the truth, you won’t have all the answers, and be engaged. Discounting the facts, passing the blame, and putting the wrong people in place to lead are examples of failed leadership. Through all the emotion, misinformation, and impatience – great leaders keep their cool and lead with strength and grace.
Three keys to effectively lead through a crisis:
Tell people the truth and build the ongoing story with facts. The headwinds are strong – the general public has lost faith in institutions, correct and incorrect information is proliferating through social media, and we have been told to distance ourselves from others. Despite these challenges, a trustworthy source is exactly what we need.
Silence and defense of the status quo are bad news during a crisis. Decisive action is critical, as is measuring progress. People want to know if it is getting better and if the end is in sight. Own the action and maintain control of the message.
Leaders must accept the gravity of a crisis situation. We don’t want to hear good news that is untrue. The values we are looking for in leaders are humility, courage, and perseverance. We do not have all the answers – we need all of us to face this crisis head on, and we will succeed.
We are not helpless in a crisis – unless we choose to be. Clear your head, pay attention to the facts, support the greater cause through your individual actions, and embrace hope. We may be contained today but we are free to help create a better tomorrow.