Let’s establish clearly: We believe when used correctly, leadership is the most powerful force we possess. However, unfortunately, many do not exhibit this type of leadership strength…especially during challenging times when it is perhaps needed the most. So we have put together a few helpful tips for leaders to navigate the unexpected
First, leaders are prepared.
The pilot, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, who safely landed his US Airways flight in the Hudson River, continually emphasized in his account of the incident how preparation was tantamount to the right execution by a leader. “At each base where I was stationed, we were reminded again and again how vital it was to know about the dangers of complacency, to have as much knowledge as possible about the particular plane you were flying, to be aware of every aspect of what you were doing. Being a fighter pilot involved risk—we all knew that—and some accidents happened owing to circumstances beyond a pilot’s control. But with diligence, preparation, judgment, and skill, you could minimize your risks. And we needed one another to do that.”
Similarly, leaders are prepared for the unexpected. Leaders prepare to mitigate problems by going through various “what if” scenarios with their team. Leaders cannot afford to be absent or unengaged. They must be present, purposely focused and prepared for any challenge. Leaders approach these issues by addressing something that we refer to as, “tapping the unknown.” Leaders tap into the unknowns by listening to input from the team and factoring the potential obstacles into the planning process to be prepared for any future event. By going through this exercise, the message to the team is to remove many of the obstacles up front, or at least have contingency plans for the other, less controllable events. However, leaders also realize that despite going through these scenarios, a “what the hell just happened” event may sometimes still occur. One that no one could have predicted. We are in one of those times now.
Second, leaders exhibit a sense of urgency, decisiveness and accountability when the unexpected occurs.
Gene Kranz, former NASA Flight Director, received the infamous call during the Apollo 13 mission, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” He took control quickly and with all of the engineers and experts in a room together, he held them accountable to finding a solution. His story clearly illustrates a management style that exhibits strength without negativity or meanness but other’s know that they mean business. On April 13, 1970, two days after the launch of Apollo 13 – the seventh manned Apollo mission flight – Gene Kranz received the news that an oxygen tank had exploded aboard the spacecraft. Kranz had the responsibility of understanding what his men were telling him and figuring out how to keep the crew safe and the mission on track. He was also tasked with keeping his men focused on their jobs, ensuring that he and his team fulfilled their duties efficiently and correctly. As the astronauts lost oxygen and electrical power for reasons that had yet to be identified, Kranz’s voice cut through with a simple command: “Okay now, let’s everybody keep cool. Let’s solve the problem, but let’s not make it any worse by guessing.” (Bos, C., Oct 07, 2013. AwesomeStories.com. Apollo 13 – Gene Kranz at Mission control)
The sense of urgency, decisiveness, and accountability were all present during this unprecedented event.
Gene Kranz also demonstrated our third trait of composure under fire and stayed calm in the midst of a storm, which we believe is one of the utmost qualities of leadership.
Like it or not, we transfer a range of emotions in various situations to those who work with us and around us, especially in a crisis or chaotic situation, where we have been blindsided by the unexpected and often times the unprecedented. If we feel panic, pressure, stress, confusion, or anxiety, that is what is transferred to others. But if we exhibit calmness, composure, focus and self-control, those around us will sense that demeanor and emulate the behavior. Leaders are ‘Mission Control’ in organizations exhibiting the strength of management.
● Poise under pressure
● Tough, smart decision-making
● Added value with their presence
● Help fighting on the front lines with the team
● Leadership demonstrated by being visible and accessible ● Good judgment with a commonsense approach
● Belief in the collective wisdom of the team
Fourth, leaders focus on what matters most…the target, not the distractions.
A well-known golf professional was recently in search of a new caddy. He narrowed it down to two choices. As a final interview, he scheduled playing a round of golf with each of them. He had already been out with the first candidate and was now playing a round with the second candidate. On a particularly challenging hole, he turned to the candidate and asked, “What do you think I should do?” The caddy responded, “Well, you need to be aware that to the left of the green is a water hazard.” The caddy went into detail on the hazard and the approximate distance from the green. The pro stopped the caddy and said, “Don’t tell me where the problem is, I do not want to focus on the hazard, I want to focus on the target…the flag. I do not need to be distracted by the problem.” The pro knew immediately he would go with candidate number one whose only focus was achieving the goal.
Leaders are aware of the distractions and the noise around them, but they will not allow the distraction to override the task at hand. They want to focus on solutions, not excuses.
Finally, Leaders are Committed, Convicted and Courageous.
Comments like leadership being a “soft skill” are one of those really, really, really foolish things people say that will infuriate a leader. Leadership is the toughest aspect of management. Management is a task, an order or an objective. But when you weigh in the responsibility to plan, organize, strategize and accept the realities – the price to be paid for taking the hill in terms of the casualty count, potential criticism, accountability – that is the agonizing toughness of leadership.
Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady was shot down over Bosnia in 1995 after flying over hostile territory without authorization in order to take pictures and confirm to the world the massacres that were taking place. The 29-year-old pilot had been missing in Serbia for five days with meager rations of food and water. O’Grady slept by day, covering himself with camouflage netting, and moved only between midnight and 4 a.m. Armed Serbs were never far away, and he often heard gunfire. Scott O’Grady risked his own life to prove to the world that the Serbs were executing massive numbers of people within their own country. The world was not paying attention to what was happening in Serbia until O’Grady proved the mass bloodshed. The rest of the world then united to stop the killing. Scott O’Grady was committed, convicted and courageous. He was willing to put his own life at risk in order to save people he did not even know by being their voice of truth and freedom.
For most of us, our leadership will not be defined by a single event or action. That’s probably a good thing because most of those moments are preceded by a catastrophic event where someone is catapulted into becoming legendary because of the action they take that literally elevates that person to such a heroic status. For most of us though, our leadership will be defined by a series of continuous smaller steps we take throughout our career and through the unexpected situations that arise that will ultimately define us as a leader.