Anyone can be calm before the storm. The trick is to be calm during the storm.
There are many diverse talents a person in a position of leadership needs to be successful. Any search for the “qualities of leadership” will consistently uncover terms such as visionary, integrity, inspiring, innovative and confident. When looking for the “techniques of leadership,” the capabilities most often mentioned are consistency, communication skills, decisiveness, planning ability, transparency and focus. Certainly without the systematic interplay of these qualities and techniques, the chance for leadership success is extremely limited.
There is one other leadership component, however, that is absolutely essential to the success of any leader even though it is rarely mentioned and is never given the prominence it deserves. As such, this talent has become the “secret weapon” that successful leaders draw on in times of need. With it, every crisis can be reduced to a manageable size and without it every crisis will be magnified and create the potential for it to spin out of control.
Can You Recognize the Secret Leadership Weapon when You See it?
Sunday, December 7th could have been a day that lived in leadership infamy. When word reached the White House that the Germans had bombed Pearl Harbor, it is fair to say that all hell broke loose. As reports of further devastating attacks in the Pacific filtered in to Washington, government leaders and military bigwigs rushed to the White House in a virtual state of panic. All day long and into the night cabinet officers, administrators and generals shuffled into the Cabinet Room of the White House for meetings.
Sitting at the head of the table, acting as if it were just another day at the office, was President Roosevelt. He chaired each meeting exhibiting a sense of urgency, but without a hint of panic as he listened to the frantic fears of others. Many of those who attended the meetings that hectic day reported that they were struck by the President’s calm demeanor and measured approach that turned what seemed to be a terrifying crisis into a problem to be systematically resolved.
Roosevelt did not get caught up in the pandemonium of confusion and fear exhibited by many when a crisis explodes on the scene. Instead, patiently and calmly, he listened to the information available, assessed it, waited for additional clarification and then began to formulate a response to the crisis. In fact, Roosevelt did not make any public statements until the following evening – 36 hours after the initial attack – when he spoke to a joint session of Congress. (although he did ask his wife, Eleanor, to give a short radio address on Sunday evening to reassure Americans that plans for victory were in the works)
When Roosevelt spoke before Congress he was resolute, strong and most of all, calm. In the end, the calm leadership exhibited by Roosevelt in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor shifted the reaction to the crisis from one of fear and panic to one of tenacious determination to overcome and resolve it. It was probably Roosevelt’s finest moment as a leader.
Yes, the secret weapon to success in leadership is the ability to remain calm in the face of crisis. Leaders show their worth when they can coolly work their way through a crisis, so the followers can work their way through to a solution. Despite the lack of recognition and attention to this leadership ability, remaining calm in the face of crisis is more critical than any other leadership trait, because it will always be needed.
The Real World Never Knows the Plan
No matter how much leadership talent an individual is blessed with or how the systems of leadership are applied, the real world is fraught with unpredictable challenges and unforeseen crises that can wreak havoc on even the best-laid plans. It is not the crisis that will determine the future, but how the leader responds to crises when they arise – and they surely will — that determines success or ruin.
Remaining calm when there appears to be every reason not to be
A leader should never lose sight of the truth that their emotions are infectious. Even more than words, followers are always infected and impacted by the emotions that the “body-language” of the leader signals. In times of crisis, followers always look to the leader for an indication as to the magnitude of the difficulty and how they should react to it. If the leader exhibits confusion, fear and panic, so too will the followers. When the leader remains calm and unflinching in the face of crisis, followers are inclined to do the same, freeing them to work on the solution, rather than run from the problem.
In the Revolutionary War, Washington and his army suffered defeat after defeat. His army was routed from New York, barely escaping capture and annihilation. And yet Washington acted almost as if it was all part of his plan to suck the British into a trap to defeat them.
Washington’s army had every reason, save for one, to give up and give in to the overwhelming power of the British army, but they didn’t panic because Washington was always among them exhibiting calmness and steadfastness in his message that the crisis would be overcome. The Army of the Potomac held together in the face of crisis and ultimately achieved victory, because their leader remained calm and gave them confidence. (It should also be noted that when the British approached Virginia, the governor of the state – Thomas Jefferson – panicked and fled. It was a failure of leadership in the time of crisis that would haunt him for the rest of his life.)
So how do You Keep Your Wits When all about You are Losing Theirs?
The most important thing a leader can do to stay calm in a crisis is to be prepared for it. It’s not possible to predict a specific crisis, but it is safe to expect a crisis will happen. It is possible to have a plan for how to deal with a crisis, even though the timing and type may be unknown.
Leaders must determine: How will the crisis be identified? How will the crisis be quantified as to its potential impact or threat? Who will they talk to first? What will be their initial actions? A crisis not met by a plan can quickly become a catastrophe, even if it is soluble. It is surprise that opens the door to panic; while a plan engenders calmness. Roosevelt did not know how or when war would come, but he did know it would come. When it did come, he had a plan to confront it and this allowed him to be calm in the face of it.
The desire to move quickly to nip a crisis in the bud is good, but a leader must be careful not to overreact. Frenetic activity at the instant a problem emerges can give the impression of panic. The legendary basketball coach John Wooden used to tell his players, “Be quick – but don’t hurry.” That is cogent advice for any leader confronted by a crisis.
In the midst of a crisis the tendency is to speed-up, but the most effective approach is to slow things down. The truth is that very few crises are really a crisis. They may be problems that need to be resolved, but rarely is a “crisis” a clear-cut life and death – success or failure situation. When leaders understand this perspective it becomes easy for them to remain calm and effectively assess the situation and find the best path to a solution.
In the end, the leader who understands and is prepared to employ the “secret weapon” of successful leadership is positioned to turn any crisis into opportunity. And that is the secret that defines a truly successful leader.