The last existential threat to most businesses was born from economic greed and hubris prior to the Great Recession. If you were a leader in 2008, you were picking up the pieces of the impact that overextension, and irresponsible, and in some cases, criminal financial positions had on our economy. The leaders left standing as we began to slowly turn the economic corner in 2010 showed incredible resilience and courage in the face of adversity. They metaphorically ran toward the fire, not away. They exhibited agility and worked with purpose. Many business leaders learned that purpose would become a vaccine to help prevent hubris and greed from overtaking us again.
My personal journey as an executive leader began in the fires of the Great Recession. I had developed leadership experience over the 20 years preceding that event, but jumped into the deep end of the pool in 2008.
I was never one to run toward a fire, but in 2008, the very existence of Kaplan Professional (KP) and the company I helped build – the Schweser Study Program for the CFA Exams – was in jeopardy.
I just couldn’t imagine a world without KP or Schweser, so I poured everything I had into ensuring the company’s demise would NOT occur under my watch. I cared too deeply about the people, the clients, and the outcomes to do anything but succeed.
Fast Forward Twelve Years…
The current crisis we’re living through is quite different from the one that sparked the Great Recession. The threat is unseen and insidious. Societal and personal anxiety is running high. Many social/societal norms and consumer consumption patterns will be permanently and substantially altered. Decision-making is either paralyzed or inhibited by the opaqueness and uncertainty surrounding the New World Order that will emerge.
This time around, the passion and commitment I feel for our business is even stronger, and the resolve to not only survive, but thrive in whatever New World Order prevails runs deep within me.
The Measure of a Leader
Our leaders, and our leadership capabilities, are being tested as never before. For the remainder of this article, I’d like to share my thoughts and observations around what I consider to be the leadership qualities we need to emphasize in times of crisis.
Before we get started, let’s look at a quote from Robin Sharma: “Anyone can show exceptional leadership ability in easy times. When all’s going to plan, anyone can be inspirational/excellent/innovative and strong. The real question is how do you show up when everything’s falling apart?”
While I argue with the assertion that anyone can show exceptional leadership when it’s smooth sailing, the part of the quote that’s relevant here is “…how do you show up when everything’s falling apart?”
Leadership Qualities that Take Center Stage in a Crisis
Put Your People First. Leading others is a responsibility and a privilege. We accomplish what we do through others – our role is to direct, to support, and to care. That last point is crucial. We don’t have to be friends with everyone we lead or even get on with them, but we must care about them.
Empathy and care are wonderful counterbalancing devices for leaders. If we treat the business as a machine, with inputs and outputs, people become coin-operated levers we pull to increase or decrease output and efficiency. Empathy and care allow leaders to walk in their team member’s shoes and see the operations of the business through a different lens. Injecting the right levels of empathy and care into your management operating system will facilitate a different and more complete view of the company’s most valuable asset – its people.
The key word is balance. Leaders must find the right balance between viewing the business as a complex system to be built, maintained, measured, and monitored against viewing the business as a collection of human interactions that must be nurtured and developed.
Putting people first does not mean there is an immutable contract to protect people and families at all cost. Sometimes, difficult employment decisions must be made to protect the business. Putting people first means you will consider the human element of your business as the primary ingredient to success and appropriately balance cold calculation with the realities of families and livelihoods.
Be a Steward of the Business. I developed the mindset of steward very early in my career. Growing up nurturing my own business and then extending that experience within the 82 year old legacy that Stanley Kaplan left for us has only served to strengthen that view.
I’m certainly here to maximize current period revenue and operating profit for Kaplan. But, to quote Don Graham, “Companies grow with the money they make.” This means that the work we do to maximize current period operating profit is balanced against a long term vision for the company.
Being a steward of the business means that I’m always balancing what’s good for the company today with what will help the company thrive for another 82 years. Looking through a lens that extends that deep in time gives me a true sense of stewardship. It makes the job less about me and more about the current and future generations that will follow me. If we get it right, what we do today will affect families and investors for decades to come.
The danger of acting with a steward’s mindset is that carrying the weight of future generations can lead to indecision and group-think that slows the business down. It doesn’t need to be that way if you’ve surrounded yourself with good people and act with strength and resolve to do what’s right for the current state with a clear vision for the future – even when the decision-making waters get murky.
Be Agile and Creative. Keep the old Mike Tyson quote in mind during times of crisis. “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.” The best laid plans get tossed out the window with alarming rapidity as the waters get more turbulent. I’ve seen many leaders succumb to their unwavering commitment to previously laid plans.
My view is that ego is the enemy of agility and creativity. Only when you set the ego aside, can you truly see what’s possible. When the ego is quiet, the ears hear more, and the mind makes connections that seemed impossible when the ego was active.
This may sound quaint, but breathing and meditation in appropriate doses do wonders to calm the ego – especially if you focus on the little things you’re grateful for while quieting your mind.
Be Resilient and Courageous. During times of heightened stress, you may find yourself dodging unfamiliar arrows and barbs. These barbs come in unexpected forms and from unusual directions. External competition becomes more fierce and you may find team members who are more vigorously protecting their territory and authority.
Be the leader who sees the bigger picture. Help others see connection points and collaboration opportunities that break down unnecessary politics and protectionism.
Crisis is a wonderful time to thaw organizational permafrost and tap into veins of discretionary effort that are locked in the ‘clay layer’ of disengaged middle management within the company.
Show others that by working together, your organization will prevail. By doing so, your courage and resilience will be tested. You will be uncomfortable. But remember, we only grow by being placed into uncomfortable situations.
Be a Role Model. Being in a leadership role is like being on stage where every expression and move you make is magnified. In times of crisis, this magnification is amplified. Our teams will read a great deal into our demeanor and tone of voice. Leaders must be calm, persistent, and thoughtful.
The most important thing a leader should model is the purpose of the organization. Leaders must live the cause. They must be in the center of the fight. I’m incredibly fortunate to know clearly the purpose of our organization and work to model it each day.
Be a Great Communicator. The old adage “say things seven times to get your message across” breaks down in times of crisis. You need to communicate much more. Rumor and innuendo travel like wildfire as stress levels rise. Clear, frequent, and consistent communication will be more important than ever.
When I use the word consistent in the preceding phrase, I’m not implying the content of the message doesn’t change. The message may need to change frequently during crisis. Part of your communication regimen should include coaching teams and team members about the need for agility, flexibility, and creativity at all levels of the company.
I will certainly emerge from this crisis a changed man. I believe we will all be affected in a meaningful way. The choice you have is this. You can passively allow the crisis and all its negativity to impact you. You can run from the fire and hope for a return to the normal you once knew.
Alternatively, you can use the crisis as an opportunity to build skills, add to your toolkit, and run toward the fire. You can push the bounds of your creativity and agility to develop new ways of thinking and being. You can embrace change and help influence the New World Order that emerges from the ashes of economic, political, and societal upheaval.
I’ll finish with a quote from Warren Buffett: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Here, in the second quarter of 2020, the tide is receding at an unprecedented rate. I’m confident that if you commit to growing the leadership qualities outlined above, you and your organization will have the armor to weather the storm ahead.