Leadership lessons from two crises
Wars have a peculiar character. They overwhelm resources, even of a nation. The stakes of the two leaders in the two wars were vastly different.
Why do I think about this? The word crisis has two meanings: A time of intense difficulty or danger; a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.
I realized that leaders (whether political or business) have to own the crisis even though things may seem outside their control, even if the resources may seem momentarily inadequate. They also have access to data for taking action, which others do not have. They have an accurate picture of what is happening (intelligence). They need to maintain mental balance, not fret, keeping emotions in check. They must correctly frame the problem: identify the boundaries of the problem, what is to be managed, and what can be ignored; what is the immediate objective, i.e. is it about saving lives or beating the enemy?
The ‘boundaries’ of crisis
A leader of a country is managing a country, everything that happens in a geography. Their scope of responsibility is everything. Nothing is excluded. A business leader manages a company, their area of control and influence circumscribed by the organizational limits.
Managing a problem is not the same as managing a country. When in a crisis, business leaders also realize that they are managing a company and are not managing ‘only’ the crisis/problem.
Shutting out the noise
Leaders make important choices. They focus on the significant stuff and ignore the rest.
Wars in a social media world have another peculiarity. Social media (and journalism) creates a lot of real-time intellectual-sounding noise. Running a country and fighting a war is one job that every journalist knows better than the person running the country or the men and women in the war room and on the frontlines. Journalists have no lives to save. They have no stake in what they are covering. The social media platforms they use have no editorial control. And like platforms like Twitter, they bear no responsibility for the harmful consequences of their reporting. Journalists assess their work in momentary relevance by effectively generating controversies every day of the year. The frenzy of opinion, generated thousands of miles away from the centre of action, masquerading as fact, repeated ad nauseam is a threat that can easily overwhelm leaders.
Leaders know that journalists, politicians, and celebrities from Los Angeles to Mumbai have opinions. Having never been in complex decision-making situations for a country, the complexities of war are options with simple impractical solutions. These need to be disregarded. Media frames issues for simple communication.
In the two battles, terms like ‘disproportionate’ response by a country or ‘systemic’ were used. These have no practical meaning. Were the journalists suggesting that wars are fought ‘proportionately’? Systemic failure is jargon. It is used when the person has no clue about what is being managed. In a crisis, discussions of historical wrongs and philosophical posturing delays action.
Leaders know that the heat of the battle is not a popularity contest. It is not the time to get social media/opinion on your side. Leaders have an uncanny ability to focus on the important (and ignore the irrelevant). They manage the situation based on a realization that the crisis cannot side track the overall responsibility of the leader. Managing a company/country requires ensuring continuity. Solving the crisis cannot be allowed to overwhelm the greater responsibility.
Causes and consequence
In the pandemic war, social behaviour (distance and masking) is the cause of the second wave of the pandemic. Inadequate medical infrastructure is an alibi. Developed countries had challenges managing to control the pandemic. The nature of the disease (geometric progression) overwhelms hospital infrastructure. The recent war in the Middle East was made visible by images/videos of the Iron Dome infrastructure intercepting missiles and injured children.
A leader differentiates between the cause or source of the problem (input) and the consequences of the crisis (outcomes). Being philosophical and tackling the result as a cause can have disastrous consequences.
Leadership competency requires the capability of identifying the safety of the people as the only issue, tackling the cause of the problem. Be aware that information is often incomplete in the middle of a crisis. The situation changes by the hour every day.
Patience and perseverance: Solutions are difficult to accelerate. Otherwise, a crisis is not a crisis. Realize that time is the only resource they do not have on their side. Ignoring people's opinions that don’t have data and don’t have a stake (skin in the game). Interests and priorities of different stakeholders’ conflict.
Visualize the future
Leaders deal with unknown futures. No one knows the right answers unless action is taken and the future unfolds. And even then, it is difficult to measure or assess whether one strategy would have done better because all situations are different.
Leadership thinking is about thinking ahead, visualizing a future rather than deciding what to do using existing information. Leaders know that concepts that worked in the past and ideas about how things will work will be quite different from the past.
When they make decisions, they are implicitly predicting the future. They do what they do, believing that their decision is correct because the world will turn out in the way they have visualized. Confidence based on a self-belief that issues that arise, even unforeseen, will be manageable. In business, CEOs are constantly predicting the future of competition and consumer behaviour, making decisions for sustainable growth.
They know they are dealing with evolving conditions. And understand that life and politics are infinitely complex. This is humbling. They know that any decision they take cannot be definite. It will change as events unfold.
This is not something academics and journalists realize or even understand. Leaders decide thinking in the present. They embrace action in the present. They do not delay. They stop searching for ideal solutions. Leaders know that the past has gone, the future is yet to come. The time to act is now.
The past and the future
They also know that advisers, commentators, and journalists look in the rearview mirror, present perspectives based on what has happened in the past, their personal experiences, and biases. Leaders are good at separating the wheat from the chaff.
Leaders hesitate to take views of persons who have rarely been in complex decision-making situations that politicians or CEOs of business face daily. The impact of their decisions capable of impacting many.
Leaders believe that they can create a different future from the present (crisis) and the past. They are not limited.
Leaders prioritize things that matter most, increasing their odds of success. They determine what matters and make decisions with conviction.
A leader cannot optimize time and effort in the middle of the war. They have 20 hours a day (assume they rest for 4 hours). They give all the time to managing the crisis. They cannot balance their time fighting the enemy, addressing the media, and handling the opposition.
The leader must:
Tackle the cause, not the outcome
Identify few immediate achievable priorities. Do the urgent, important, and achievable
Ignore irrelevant stakeholders’ opinions
Decide what not to do is (often more critical)
Assume a role of reflection, being thoughtful, and presence of mind in a crisis