Crisis can be defined as a turning point, for better or worse, originally associated with health status in the body’s battle with a disease or fever. A crisis is a time when one or more difficult decisions must be made because, at that turning point, things can go either way. If the situation gets worse, we must be prepared to take radical measures. If the situation gets better, we may be able to forego the most extreme measures yet maintain our rigor and discipline as we monitor improvement. In any situation, a crisis is a call to leadership, bolstered by courage.
In the movie Darkest Hour, the king asks Winston Churchill about the mood of Parliament and then asks, “Are you not afraid?” to which Churchill responds, haltingly, “… I am… most… terribly…” The leader in crisis, however, cannot be paralyzed by fear. What is the right thing for the leader to do in times of crisis?
Protect the mission
First, a crisis is a time to refocus on the inner core of why we are in the work we are in. Whether it is relieving pain and suffering, serving those with greatest needs, nourishing and nurturing the generations who will lead us, or pursuing other important missions, leaders must have a laser-like focus on mission-critical work. Whatever it takes to provide critical bedside care, make food and clean water accessible, or otherwise fulfill our mission, leaders need to peel away anything that might impede delivering on the promise of the mission of the organization they lead if that organization is to survive the crisis.
Care for people
At the same time, leaders can lead only if there are people to follow them. When we accept a role as a leader, we don’t take on the added responsibility for ourselves. As Shakespeare writes in Measure for Measure, “Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, not light them for themselves…” Translating this, we see that people are not made leaders for their own benefit. As a leader in crisis, your role is to care about the people on your team, assessing what they need to be successful in delivering your mission while, at the same time, ensuring they have what they need to continue in their work and meet their own responsibilities, as heads of families, neighborhoods, and communities. I often say, “When there’s a hole in the boat, the best swimmers jump first.” If leaders don’t care for the people on their teams in times of crisis, the strongest team members may jump ship, leaving the organization ill-prepared to resume and grow when the crisis subsides.
Create a strategy
Michael Kaiser, who served as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from 2001 to 2014, talked about the importance of strategy for arts organizations to become healthy as America pulled out of the great recession. Applicable to both non-profit and for-profit sectors, the principles he outlines include the vital role a strategy for the future plays in attracting investors and gaining the confidence of clients. I once interviewed a healthcare philanthropy chief and asked about the five-year plan for his organization. With shock and disdain he replied, “Five years!? That’s an eternity in healthcare! We’re just trying to keep the doors open.” One of the ways leaders fall short in difficult times is to cut too deep, shaving to the bone, and thus diverting resources and creativity away from the future. Leaders must be bold enough to lay out a strategic pathway to the future and invite others to join them on the way.
Navigate a course
While the crisis is at center stage it may be difficult for leaders to focus beyond the moment. Yes, if you’re taking on water, you must bail and pump and do all things possible to contain. However, the captain must turn the ship to port, seeking the optimal place to weather the storm. As the leader, the captain envisions the future, with its calmer seas, new adventures, discoveries, and innovations as the underlying inspiration for survival in that darker moment. Navigating through uncharted waters requires constant vigilance, course corrections, nimbleness, and a good dose of jury-rigging. As the leader in crisis, your role is to ensure that your organization keeps moving. Times of crisis are not met by reflecting on how good we were, or how it used to be, or what we did back then, or wait and see. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said it best in what I think of as my life quote: “I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving—we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it—but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”
Leading in a time of crisis is proof of true leadership. Indeed, for one who is called to lead, crisis is a time for mustering character and calm, grounded on a foundation of doing what is right.
Watch the Advancement Resources’ webinar, Advancement Leadership in a Time of Crisis, for a discussion of recommended actions you and your organization can take as you chart your true course through this time of crisis.