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The Three Kinds of Crisis Leaders 

By Wayne Rivers

May 10, 2020

We're in a very unsettled period the likes of which most of us haven't seen before. There have been many disruptive, shocking, scary, and momentous events in my lifetime, but this one seems to have taken on a life of its own.

Much of the material in this article comes from my friend Arlin Sorensen of ConnectWise. He started a blog recently with: "So, you never signed up to lead in a crisis." That's quite an arresting first sentence, and one with which we can all identify today!

It’s said that sports builds character, and maybe that’s true. I think that sports certainly reveal character. If you play golf with a guy who consistently cheats by improving his lie or play tennis with someone who consistently calls the lines incorrectly, you really have to question what that behavior is telling you about that person's character. Crisis leadership is revealing in the same way; it spotlights a leader’s true nature.

Leader Types

The frozen leader.  These people aren't ready. They're locked into their routines and norms, and they are inflexible. You can identify frozen leaders because they say things like: "it's outside of my control," or "other organizations have more resources than we do to cope, and we just don't have resources sufficient to get by," or, “there's nothing I can do. This is something bigger than me.”

Early in my career, one of the companies I worked for faced a pivotal challenge. The boss, a person I really respected, reacted in quite an unusual way. He decided that was the right time to take a ten-day vacation! He was literally absent when we needed him most. We looked to him for guidance, and then he was suddenly gone. He was frozen by circumstance.

The business as usual leader. This second kind of leader—and I must admit that this is the kind of leadership with which I identify—admit that there is a bit of a crisis, and things are unsettled right now, but their aim is squarely directed to getting back to business as normal. Who knows if and/or when that will even be possible?

There are writers opining that we won't ever get back to business as usual and will have to adjust to a “new normal.” Business as usual leaders change as little as they possibly can. They're anxious to get back to their routines, and they say things like, "We've made a few changes. Let's just lock in for now and hope these changes work." Or they say, "We really can't make any more changes because we need some stability in the organization right now."

The agile leader. Agile leaders are flexible and adaptable. They're ready to pivot, ready to make big changes and go in new directions. They are characterized by comments like, "Our mission is too important to let these current events overwhelm us. We are going to achieve our mission." Most importantly, they ask questions. Asking the right questions of people inside and outside of an organization is what leadership is all about!  What can we learn from other people? What are they doing to be successful, and how can we adapt those things into our own organization? What's your perspective? What do you think we should do? How can we do things differently? What can we do better?

What Will the Pandemic Reveal About Your Leadership Style?

Doug McCright of The Family Business Institute has a brilliant saying: "There's no perfect decision. There are always trade-offs.” In a time of crisis, you're going to have to give up something. Maybe it's your routine, maybe it's a customer relationship, or perhaps something else. In this period of upheaval and unpredictability, leaders are making trade-offs sometimes daily, and those trade-offs will help reveal their leadership.

Arlin closed his blog with a quote from an article that he traced back to 1980: "Turbulence causes change, and change is one man's opportunity and another man's downfall.”  We are caught up in a period of disruption now; what kind of leader will you be during turbulent times?

Wayne Rivers is the president of The Family Business Institute.

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