Crises Leaders: The Real Heroes

Nandini Vaidyanathan highlights on how handling crises is often an underrated leadership trait

From the time of the Greek philosophers, there have been two perspectives of leadership. One is the competency or traits aspect. The other is the behavioural perspective. The competency model typically includes metrics such as EI (Emotional Intelligence), integrity, drive, ability to inspire and motivate, personal charisma to persuade and convert, self-confidence to convey decisions with conviction, intelligence and knowledge of the business environment.

The behavioural perspective focuses more on people orientation and how to motivate them to perform tasks to achieve organisational goals.

There is a third approach to leadership which, for some reason, does not get the credit it deserves. It is called contingency perspective. How does the man-at-the-helm perform when there is a crisis in the organisation?

In this column I would like to dwell on crisis -management capabilities of leaders.

What is a crisis in the context of an organisation? Is dwindling revenue a crisis? Is employee trading company secrets to competitors a crisis? Is poor organisation morale a crisis? Is lack of investor confidence a crisis? Is change in government regulation which prohibits your product a crisis?

All of the above are crises but let us examine each of the above scenarios to understand the crisis better. Dwindling revenue is a crisis within a time-frame. There is no immediacy to it unless it persists over a period of time. What about poor organisation morale? It is solely due to the result of poor leadership and it did not happen overnight, so again there is long-termness to it. Is lack of investor confidence a crisis? It is. However, it is merely a result of poor decision-making over time that has eroded investor confidence in the organisation.

That leaves us with two very typical crises – employees selling secrets and government regulation changing to prohibit your product. Both are in the here-and-now, both have to be addressed with alacrity, urgency and strategy. It is crises such as these that I want to talk about, that brings the quintessential contingency leader out of the rabbit hole.

I’d like to call them ‘crises leaders’ and not contingency leaders because the word contingency does not communicate the seriousness of the crisis at all. Studies have shown that these crises leaders are antithetical to the typical description of leaders. Leaders are expected to have an imposing personality, dress well, talk well, conduct themselves well, and be very socially conscious and extremely aware of how others see them.

However, crisis leaders tend to be extremely low key, inward looking, seriously challenged in social interaction and extremely shy to demonstrate any leadership trait, to the point that to an onlooker it almost seems like poor judgment on the part of the organisation board in choosing someone like him. Darwin Smith of Kimberly-Clark is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. He was a mild-mannered, shy, retiring kind of a guy, an in-house lawyer and was made the CEO only because the incumbents were not ready to take on the mantle as the company had begun to flounder. People said he wore clothes that were so ill-fitting that it seemed as if he had got them from the Salvation Army! He was set up to fail and he said every day he worked hard so that he didn’t fail. Yet, when he retired from the company 20 years later, it had grown 2500 per cent!

What makes these crises leaders so effective? What makes them surprise everyone, including themselves?
Firstly, I think a specific kind of crisis resonates with them and gets them into action mode. Not all crises are grist for the mill. What resonates with them is something that touches a personal chord. I remember a trade union leader in one of the companies that I worked in, who hated violence of any kind, physical or verbal. His style of negotiation was calm to the point of being irritating. I once heard from one of the members that he was actually a firebrand and in one of the strikes many years ago, he gave an incendiary speech that roused his men to action. The police opened fire and he lost three of his men. It affected him deeply and he felt personally responsible for their deaths. Since then he had changed his style of leadership.

Secondly, as Darwin Smith said, nobody expects them to be leaders, so they can wear the mantle of leadership lightly. In a crisis, it is the expectation of the performance of the leader to produce the desired result that everyone dwells on. When you have a low-key leader in charge, everyone is too busy predicting doom!

Thirdly, because crises leaders are low on self-confidence, they are thorough in their preparation for problem-solving. Nothing is left to chance, nothing is ignored, nobody is blamed, and there are no gaps in understanding the extent of the problem or in its debilitating effect. There is no ‘glossing over’!

Fourthly, these leaders who never expected to be crises leaders are grateful for the chance that they have had, so there is no entitlement, nothing taken for granted. Since they may not have an accompanying persona that can spout a lot of organisational bullshit, they tend to be careful communicators, thorough in their facts, measured in their tone, and humble with their results.

Two questions however, have always puzzled me. Why do they hide in the woodwork? Why do they go back to hiding once they have successfully managed the crises?

Mobile Ad 1

Mobile Ad 2