When I was learning to drive, my father would toss a tennis ball across the car in front of my face. “You have to be ready for anything!” he’d bark as the ball ricocheted off the driver’s side window.
And he was right. Driving circles in an empty parking lot wasn’t going to prepare me for a crowded highway, a deer leaping out of the woods, or a truck veering across lanes. I fought my reflex to swerve the wheel or slam on the brakes. With practice, I got better at remaining calm, alert, and ready for anything.
Maybe this is one of the reasons I stay composed when facing crises today. A personal crisis — like the death of a loved one, job loss, a debilitating illness, food scarcity, or financial struggles — tests each of us at different times and to varying degrees. A global crisis — like a natural disaster, terrorist attack, technology outage, political uprising, or disease outbreak — tests us all. In a crisis, we often don’t have the time or wherewithal to consciously deliberate; instinct takes over and we rely on experience, intuition, and our own personal mettle.
In the past year we’ve all witnessed crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic — from governments, businesses, individuals, even ourselves. “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor,” said U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. It’s often when navigating rough waters that we develop critical skills that serve us well going forward. Turbulent times are also when we need extraordinary leaders most.
In her book Forged in Crisis, Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn explores how leaders are formed by the high-stakes circumstances they navigate. Koehn tells the compelling stories of explorer Ernest Shackleton, environmentalist Rachel Carson, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, drawing leadership lessons from their experiences. Shackleton was marooned on ice floes during his voyage to the Antarctic and kept his crew not only alive but also cohesive and hopeful until they could be rescued after seventeen months. Carson was working to save the planet, alerting the world to the dangers of DDT while she battled terminal cancer. Lincoln took on the challenge of abolishing slavery as he led the nation during the deadly and fractious American Civil War.
Koehn’s take-away from these stories: Leaders are made not born. She describes how personal experiences from childhood through adulthood make us who we are — as individuals and leaders — and how the power to lead resides in each of us. Managing through crisis is the ultimate test of leadership — where some leaders shine. Koehn also explored how these historical lessons apply to challenges of leading through various modern challenges, including COVID-19.
In recent years we’ve experienced all sorts of crises, some well-managed, some not. The 1982 Tylenol product tampering crisis. The 1984 Union Carbide India toxic gas leak. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The 2001 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plan accident. The 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. The 2017 Equifax data breach. The 2019 Australia bushfires. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. And too many more.
Some key takeaways for leading through crisis:
Face Reality and Give Hope: A key role that a leader plays during a crisis is acknowledging the challenges while giving confidence in a path forward to overcome them. Koehn calls this providing “brutal honesty” along with “credible hope.” This requires building trust and articulating a compelling and courageous vision for how teams will triumph over adversity.
Clarify Purpose and Stay Focused: Leaders must ensure crisis response is guided by purpose and principles. They should set direction and clarify expectations, roles, and resources of the response team, and then empower and guide them to stay focused and drive decisive action.
Act with Urgency and Course Correct: Under pressure, a leader must act quickly but be prepared to pivot in real time, as new information becomes available based on experimentation and learning. According to Koehn: “To successfully navigate crisis, strong leaders quickly get comfortable with widespread ambiguity and chaos.”
Inspire and Support People: Just as critical, leaders must take care of themselves and their teams. Navigating crises is mentally and physically draining. Teams need the guidance and support of leaders so that they stay healthy, engaged, motivated, and don’t burn out.
Emerge Stronger: Leaders help teams, businesses, and communities emerge stronger from the crisis. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in 1888. True resilience is often developed by overcoming adversity. The learnings and outcomes must be applied to prevent future crises, mitigate risks, and shore up crisis response.
Leadership matters — always — but there is no greater test than how leaders respond during the pressure-cooker, all-hands-on-deck, all-eyes-on-you situation of a real crisis. That’s when exceptional leaders emerge to help their teams and their communities navigate the stormy seas. They do so not because they were born with some secret crisis playbook or have some innate crisis management savvy, but rather because they built the skills and capabilities over their lifetimes that enable them to step up in turbulent times and they have the courage, resilience, and humility to bring people together and help us emerge stronger.