By Richard M. Franza, Ph.D., Guest Columnist
Under pressure? Rick Franza says the leadership you practice in good times will shine during a crisis.
I feel a little funny writing about leadership, when this great town and readers of this column include, among others, retired Maj. Gen. Perry Smith (a frequent Augusta Chronicle contributor) and retired Brig. Gen. Jeff Foley. The two gentlemen are not only great leaders themselves, but are gifted scholars and writers on the topic of leadership.
I am certain there are many other readers who are better leaders than I will ever be, and many great leaders of industry and government would have been in town this weekend for the Masters Tournament under normal circumstances.
After almost 40 years in the military and higher education, I have been fortunate to observe many great leaders during times of crisis, as well as some not-so-great leaders.
The biggest lesson I learned from these observations and experiences is that the best leaders in a crisis are ones who practiced great leadership in better times. Because they honed their skills during relatively stress-free situations, they were able to deliver strong leadership under stress from “muscle memory”; their great, “everyday leadership” was accentuated by crisis.
So, today, I want to spend our time together reviewing leadership skills needed in crisis that also serve us in routine situations.
One requisite of good leadership is the ability to communicate. There are many important aspects to effective communication that become crucial in times of crisis. First and foremost, good leaders communicate early and often. They ensure their people are well-informed with accurate information. This is particularly true in crises because uncertainty creates additional stress.
It is critical to get “out in front” of the crisis, limiting others who attempt the fill the void with speculation and misinformation. Regular updates are key, as they allow your people to execute their duties with less worry.
Although some say that you can never over-communicate in a crisis, I have to disagree. If nothing has changed, your communication should be limited to letting people know nothing has changed. Unnecessary messaging when people are busy can cause them to ignore future communications.
There are other important aspects of communication critical to good leadership, including how you receive and deliver bad news. In crisis situations, bad news news needs to be dealt with swiftly, but you never “shoot the messenger.” React inappropriately to bad news and your people will become reluctant to share it, making you either unable or too late to deal with the issues.
Great leaders need to deliver bad news themselves, not delegate the duty to others. Additionally, great leaders deliver bad news honestly and compassionately, and always with an action plan.
For an excellent example on how to deliver bad news, do a search for Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson’s March 19 video to his people on the effects of the coronavirus on the company.
One final critical aspect of communication critical to good leadership is dealing with disagreement, criticism and praise. Again, this advice is also relevant to every day leadership. In terms of disagreement and criticism, each should take place privately – not publicly.
Leader should encourage different ideas and debate behind closed doors, but the team must be unified and consistent in public. Similarly, a good leader does not criticize his people publicly. If someone needs to be corrected or reprimanded, it should happen in private. Nothing can be worse in a crisis than organizational dissension.
On the other hand, use public forums to praise of your team members. Recognize your people’s good works and deflect the praise given to you. People will more likely follow a humble leader who shares the credit.
Beyond communication, another key aspect of crisis leadership is leaning on your team’s experts. If you are leading an organization of any significant size, you cannot be the expert on everything. So, hopefully, before a crisis takes place, you have developed a team who you can depend on in and out of crisis situations.
Probably the worst characteristic I have seen in bad leaders is insecurity; someone not secure enough to hire people who are better than he or she in certain areas. When a crisis arises, having experts you can lean on is essential. Leaders ultimately make the key decisions, but it is important to surround yourself with experts to provide timely advice and counsel.
One final element of leadership necessary during a crisis is accountability. As a leader, the buck stops with you. Sometimes things happen that are out of your control or caused by someone who works for you, but you are ultimately accountable. Holding yourself accountable for what is going on and challenging yourself to do better enables you to better lead your organization.
The coronavirus has challenged us all and created, at a minimum, both a health and economic crisis. When we are challenged like this, good leadership is required to survive the crisis and thrive after the crisis.
I hope this advice helps as you lead through these difficult times.
The writer is dean of the Hull College of Business at Augusta University.
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