In an era of highly publicized racial discrimination, sexual harassment, sex and gender bias in the workplace, deadly police brutality cases, violent protest, a seemingly never-ending deadly pandemic, calls for police reformation and defunding, along with Police Officers and Police Chief’s leaving the profession, it’s pretty clear that the United States is under siege and is currently facing a lack of leadership in many areas. In the words of Harvard Divinity School Professor, Dr. Cornel West, “We are witnessing the collapse of the legitimacy of leadership.” How do we, as a country, change the narrative and establish leadership at the highest levels?
Leading during a crisis is never easy. As a leader, you do not have the luxury to rest on your laurels. You need to be prepared for a crisis, whether a man-made, natural disaster or a pandemic that alters life as you know it. If the crisis hasn’t happened yet, then it will, so preparation is vital. You must always remain in a state of readiness and ensure that your operational plans are up to date. You must go over your operational strategies and conduct training with your team so that the plans will still be carried out if you are away. The coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States approximately February of 2020. By the end of March, schools and businesses were shut down, and mandatory stay at home orders and teleworking became the new normal for all non-essential workers. Millions of people were infected with the virus; there was a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and not enough ventilators to go around; millions more were unemployed. Not to mention the stock market crashed to pre-depression rates, and we were heading for a recession. Pretty quickly, whether anyone wanted to admit it or not, the country was in a crisis!
We are all in the eye of a storm that no one saw coming however, your employees rely on you to have all the answers. They will expect you to flip a switch and go into crisis mode but what they expect is for you to make it better and assure them that everything will be alright because, as a leader, you have a clear vision that will get them through this crisis? My advice for leaders is to communicate with your employees openly and often. Leaders must be fully transparent with employees and communicate using as many tools as possible. If you have a group text or email – use it, a brief newsletter from the CEO or Chief – send it, Video conferencing such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams – schedule it (employees like to see their leaders, especially during crises). They want to know that they are not alone, and you, as the Captain, are still on board and have not abandoned the ship. Set up an employee hotline so individuals can call in to have their questions answered (please do not use recorded messages and if the lines are busy, commit to have a live person who is knowledgeable about the company’s policies and procedures, contact the employee immediately). Employees hate to feel left out on information. Suppose one group has received information that has not been distributed among the entire team. In that case, employees make up their own narrative, and the conspiracy theorist and rumor mill groups will believe that the leader is hiding information. During a crisis, you do not need anything to cause employees to trust you as the leader. “The only safe ship in a storm is Leadership,” according to Faye Wattleton, former President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
During crisis times, employees will expect more from their leaders and demand that their leaders step up and lead. In recent history, there have been many examples of leaders who, for whatever reason, have failed to lead. Let us look at a few examples of leaders who failed to take responsibility and what happened due to their inability to act as leaders.
Chipotle Crisis – 2015: The Co-CEO’s Steve Elois & Montgomery Moran came under fire for lack of food safety. For years they had won numerous accolades for high-quality food until they were hit with several incidents of foodborne illnesses such as E. coli, Salmonella, and the Norovirus. After the story became public, the two men were accused of blaming everyone but themselves for the problems. One of the CEO’s went on television and proclaimed that “Chipotle would be the safest place to eat now that it had implemented new food safety measures.” Unfortunately, they could not keep that promise as the number of Norovirus cases continues to grow to post their proclamation. Lack of public confidence emerged, and stock prices began to fall.
The Co-CEO’s mistake was a failure to take responsibility. If you are in a leadership position, the first thing you must do when things go wrong is to acknowledge that you are the accountable executive and accept the responsibility. Billie Jean King said it best, “The most important words that have helped me in life, when things have gone right or when things have gone wrong, are to accept responsibility.” These leaders’ inability to take responsibility affected their brand, their employees, stockholders, and eroded the public’s trust.
Flint Water Crisis: Michigan Governor Rick Synder caused outrage across the nation for his management of the Flint water crisis. The news became public that Flint, Michigan had lead-tainted water in their pipes for years, and the government knew that this issue existed and failed to do anything to correct it. It was not until people became violently ill that this situation was brought to light. The governor blamed the EPA and others but failed to take responsibility for the role he and his office played in this epic failure. How much confidence do you think the people of Flint Michigan have in their leadership to keep them safe, look out for their best interest, and be completely transparent when serious issues arise? Probably Zero!
During a commencement speech for the high school graduating Class of 2020, former President Barack Obama gave his perception regarding leadership surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally turn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” he said. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” That quote instantly reminded me of the scene from the movie “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy discovers that the Wizard was a regular human being, hiding behind a curtain, using a loudspeaker, with no magical powers. Everyone feared the wizard and had no problem following him due to his perceived power as a leader until they saw who he really was. I am not saying whether I agree with the statement or not, but the point is, people expect someone to take charge, especially during crises.
“The true test of a leader is their ability to lead during times of crisis; it will show you and everyone else who you really are.” –me
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