Turning Crisis into Opportunties

While some leaders see the crisis as an unwelcome intruder, other leaders are able see it as an ally. Why? Because they like the fact that the crisis forces them to think in new ways, develop new skills, and solve complex problems.

In fact, it is entirely possible that no self-respecting leader would ever wish for a position without a good crisis or two thrown in. Abraham Lincoln had the civil war. Mahatma Gandhi had the salt tax. Susan B. Anthony had the suffrage of women. Crisis creates opportunity.

Unfortunately, many leaders miss out on the benefits of a crisis because they rely too heavily on the their previous experience. They treat the new demands as minor variations of past events. They underestimate the demands and complexity of the situation. However, you cannot solve today’s problems with yesterday’s thinking. Leaders who refuse to change course are on the fast track to failure.

So how can you break this cycle and benefit from your current crisis? Here are 10 acceleration strategies you can apply immediately to get the most out of this crisis.

Challenge your assumptions: Your assumptions about the past and the future determine how you behave. When you change your assumptions, you change your actions. Start looking for the assumptions behind your conclusions. Actively invite your team to challenge your assumptions—and praise them for their input. Ask yourself and your team, “What assumptions do we have about our resources, team, customers, competitors, abilities, and the market that may be preventing our success?”

Take a personal stand. Extreme demands may tempt you to cut corners or conceal the truth. Don’t let the crisis change you into someone you don’t want to be. Instead, use the crisis to help define what really matters to you. Clarifying your purpose and living your values will give you and others the confidence to weather any storm.

Take on big challenges. Big challenges provide the potential for big learning. If you pass up or avoid the challenges, you delay or even derail your development. Push hard against your self-imposed boundaries. Step up today and take on the challenges that may be just out of your reach.

Make decisions. Your ability to make decisions—in spite of the ambiguity—will serve you throughout your career. You can’t stand in the middle of the road waiting for a perfect answer. You will never have all the information you need. Obtain as much data and insights as you can and then make the decision. No one has a crystal ball. Just make your best estimate and learn quickly from the outcome.

Put a stake in the ground (frequently): Define exactly where your organization is going and how it will get there—even if you only define the next few months: do it. Don’t leave people up in the air while you sit in endless meetings coming up with the perfect plan. Give people a glimpse of the future. Then, remind them over and over about this destination. Make sure your team knows exactly where they are going.

Build key relationships. Move out of your social comfort zone. Reduce your time with the people who are comfortable but not critical to success. Reach out and establish strategic relationships. Talk with people who have the information or power you need to get things done. Fear no one. Stop playing small.

Create a message of hope: High fears require high hope. Your people need realistic hope—not a bunch of hoopla and hyperbole. They need to know that the leadership team is believable and capable. They need to know that times are tough but their efforts will lead to a better place. They need to know that getting through this will not just benefit the organization but each one of them. Leaders in crisis create optimism for the future.

Handle bad news with empathy: Tough times can require reduced pay, increased workloads, and terminations. Avoid the trap of telling people it isn’t personal. Although your reason for taking action may not be personal, the impact is very personal. Acknowledge the trauma and listen to the concerns. Your empathy will come back to you in the form of greater respect and commitment.

Let go: The skills that got you here are not necessarily the ones you need now. Some of your skills need to change because they are no longer right for the situation. Other skills need to change because they never were right. It is time to leave behind skills, habits, phrases, behaviors, doubts, and routines that limit your success.

Apply feedback quickly: Merely receiving feedback is not acceptable. A crisis requires you to interpret and apply feedback now. Your employees, your customers, and your competitors are providing you critical information that needs action. It is intolerable to say, “Thank you for the feedback” but ignore the message. Success comes from listening completely and taking action.

You might ask, “Aren’t all of these things needed even when there isn’t a crisis?” Of course, they are. But, good times and success hide many flaws. You could get by in the past with less effort in these areas. However, a crisis magnifies your strategic and leadership flaws. Now, you have no place to hide—and that is good news for you.

The demands and challenges will force you to jump the learning curve and make a real difference. Your current crisis has the potential to be your ally and make you a better leader. You will have the opportunity to learn in a few months what would have taken years. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the current crises were created just to grow leaders.

About the Author
Dave Jennings accelerates meaningful change. He has worked with leaders from 20 of the Fortune 500 and spoken in 23 countries. His articles and commentary have been featured in The Washington Post, Forbes, and thestreet.com. He is author of Catapulted: How Great Leaders Succeed Beyond their Experience. Contact Dave at dave@davejennings.com.
  1. Daniel Reply

    These are great strategies for turning a challenging situation/environment into an asset for change. I agree with your point on creating a message of hope and would add creating a compelling vision of the future.

    Great points, can’t wait to put some of these into practice!

  2. Don Jones Reply

    one of the best ideas for me Dave is “Handle bad news with empathy”
    That is a very hard thing to do but boy do I consider it a great recommendation. I haven’t heard this before and I believe it is so important – it is often the time when empathy is often left out. Thanks for reminding me to keep it in and to do more than that – to use it to make the situation better!! Great.

  3. Bob Spiel Reply

    Crisis, like a broken bone, can make an organization stronger in the end. It becomes a defining moment that allows a group to literally hit reset and move forward. Thanks Dave for the thoughts. They are right on.

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