Lead, Transform

Navigating Instability: Five Key Leadership Traits


Like a rising tide, a crisis tends to find weakness or unpreparedness and expose it.

This is true for every element of any team, organization, or society, but especially for our leaders.  In a crisis, leaders are tested—how they respond will define them and the future path of their organization or team.  Like many others, I have had the opportunity to face many crises in my life, personal and professional, big and small.   Reflecting on what went right, and what went wrong during these past trials, I believe there are some key attributes of successful leaders facing acute challenges.  They include patience, decisiveness, adaptability, optimism and empathy.

1. Patience

Every Naval aircraft has one common instrument, a mechanical clock in the cockpit.  When practicing emergency procedures in flight school, a common refrain was to “wind the clock” before acting.  This advice, to pause before flipping switches or maneuvering the plane, was meant to create time to think and process information before acting.  This is good advice in any crisis situation.  Initial reporting is often wrong.  First reactions are often driven by emotion and not rational thought.  Leaders will be well served by practicing patience and allowing a situation to develop, using this time to verify and gather additional information and to seek advice from others before leaping into a situation.  While this time can be valuable, it is finite.

2. Decisiveness

Decisiveness is not the opposite of patience.  In a crisis, someone needs to take charge and lead, and that means being willing to make decisions.  This does not imply haste, but does imply focus and vigor.  In analyzing possible courses of action, do not let perfection become the enemy of “good enough.”  Gather information, develop a plan, communicate the plan, and then execute the plan and adjust as needed.  Don’t worry, I can almost guarantee it will not be perfect.   

3. Adaptability

Another military maxim is that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  This is true in a crisis situation as well.  Learning organizations with robust feedback loops will fare better than others with more hierarchal and autocratic cultures.  Leaders will need to continue to gather information, learn, adapt, and refine.  Often the expertise resides close to the point of execution.  Leaders should make it a point to visit the “front lines” and talk to the people closest to the crisis. 

4. Optimism

The energy and attitude of a leader will be reflected throughout the organization.  No matter how dark things seem, a leader needs to project confidence and positivity.  It will help if the leader takes a long view, beyond current events, to focus on the organization’s future state.  This is the vision the leader is trying to deliver. By keeping an eye on the horizon, the leader will be able to inspire and encourage the team to work together toward their common goals. 

5. Empathy

Finally, the leader needs to see and acknowledge the individual and collective challenges the crises create.   There may be a sense of loss or regret; this is normal.  If required, make time to mourn or reflect on what was lost or what might have been.  This will help everyone, including the leader, heal.  Be sensitive that individual team members may be impacted differently. 

It has been said that how one handles a crisis is the true test of a leader.  I believe paying attention to these practices will help leaders answer the challenges of the current rising tide, and those sure to come.

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