Why Leaders Can't Shy Away From Crisis

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 10-06-2009 Print Email
Former CEO Bill George explains why leaders can't avoid the spotlight in troubled times.

CIOs are no stranger to crisis. For many, each new day brings a brand-new potential disaster. Bill George, the longtime chairman and CEO of Medtronic, examines his and other leaders' courage under fire in his new book, 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis. In this chapter, George--now a professor at Harvard Business School--reveals a simple truth for all leaders: You can't hide in a crisis. George asserts that being rooted in your guiding principles (what he calls your "True North") can help you turn crisis into true opportunity.

In today's world you don't have to be a politician or a celebrity to be a public figure. As a business or nonprofit leader, you are constantly in the public eye. Your compensation is published in the newspaper. Your statements are widely quoted. People speculate about what you are thinking.

The modern world with its multiplicity of new information sources presents myriad pitfalls and opportunities. In a crisis, everything is amplified. The world of the Internet has democratized information and dramatically increased its velocity of transmission. As a leader, you need to find ways to use it to your benefit rather than bemoan its downsides.

No one did this more skillfully than Barack Obama in his successful 2008 presidential campaign. As effective as his team was in sending consistent messages through every possible medium, Obama was still plagued with guilt by association with the fiery sermons of his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, missteps by his economic advisor Austan Goolsbee, and offhand comments by supporter Samantha Power, who called Hillary Clinton "a monster."

When I joined Litton Industries in 1969, its public relations specialist told me that chairman Charles "Tex" Thornton directed him to keep the company hidden in the tall grass. In response, he told him, "Tex, when you're standing 10 feet tall, you can't hide in the grass." The heads of today's leaders are way above the grass, so they might as well take advantage of the visibility rather than let it whip-saw them.

With the widespread use of blogs, Twitter and YouTube, nearly anyone can get exposure as an instant media expert. The more extreme someone's views are, the more attention they seem to receive. Articles and video clips get passed on to friends of friends, and suddenly the whole world is watching. Plaintiffs, attorneys and government regulators frequently subpoena massive numbers of company e-mails, sifting through them to find employee comments that will support their cases.

During a crisis, the spotlight on leaders is turned up to maximum intensity. People are so nervous and hungry for information that they hang on every word from their leaders, trying to glean clues from body language, facial expressions, and even the color of their clothing.

In the glare of the lights, your ability to stay true to your values is put to the test. You can make or break your reputation in an instant. Look at the leadership of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11. While national leaders retreated to their bunkers, Giuliani was instantly visible and present among the grieving people of New York. Giuliani became a symbol of a New York that cared and a mayor who exuded confidence that the city would overcome the worst disaster in its history.

While a crisis like 9/11 may be the ultimate test of your courage as a leader, it's not one you can anticipate. But you can be ready by being grounded in your True North and being clear about your beliefs and your principles. When you approach issues from that point of view, instead of worrying about your image and the impressions you create, people respect you as a leader they can count on and will make sacrifices for the good of the whole.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, by Bill George. Copyright (c)  2009 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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