Crisis Leadership and Authenticity

One of the things I like most about helping organizations with crises is the issue of leadership. When I was 18 I got a job working for a funeral home in my small home town that also had an ambulance. It was quite a thrill for an 18 year old to drive that ambulance down the main street in town with lights flashing and going far too fast. But what I really enjoyed was the fact that in a crisis like an ambulance crew was usually called to, the people were real. No game playing, no dishonesty, no pretending you were feeling different than how you really were feeling. Authenticity I think is the word they use for it now.

Organizational crises are like that. You get to see people for who they really are. Strengths and weaknesses, abilities, vision, personality, leadership. I remember a good friend who had served in the Navy talking about the leadership of his ship's captain. When the crew wasn't paying attention and becoming lacksadaisical he would rant and get all excited. But in a time of real crisis, when lives were on the line or there was great risk, he was the calm one, deliberate, unruffled, unemotional.

The leadership style of your organization's leaders will be a critical element of the success in dealing with a major crisis. If you are the leader, I could tell you to think about it and prepare, and imagine how you want to lead but I think that is all rather pointless. Because authenticity will win out. Chances are you are where you are because you have the leadership skills you need to do the job when it is needed most. If you don't, you're best off delegating responsibilities of command during a time of crisis.

This issue of leadership is top of mind with me right now in part because of leadership challenges in some important situations where I am involved. And in part because I just finished reading one of the best books on leadership I've ever read. It is called "Biggest Brother" and I think it is a far better way to learn about leadership in crises than all the Harvard Business Press books you could buy. Major Dick Winters was the focal point of the Stephen Ambrose WWII history book called "Band of Brothers" and of the Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg HBO mini-series of the same name. 

This book is an authorized biography of Winters whose fame as a combat leader may now be approaching or even succeeding that of Patton. I think the biography by  Larry Alexander is better than Major Winters' autobiography (called "Beyond Band of Brothers") even though it is great too.

A few quick lessons for crisis managers from this great American hero. His leadership creed: "Follow me." Don't go ask anyone to go anywhere or do anything you wouldn't go or do yourself. He said his greatest strength was his ability to think clearly in the pressure of the battle. His leadership in the taking of four 88 guns that were pounding the troops coming off Utah beach is one of the exciting and amazing examples of tactical leadership in the face of overwhelming odds that you can imagine.