Leadership in Crisis
In the acclaimed HBO miniseries based on fact, “Band of Brothers”, one of the 101st Airborne Division’s leaders, Richard Winters, has just been through a struggle with his soldiers and has been promoted when the troops are tasked with taking the small town of Foy. Now an executive officer, Winters is a deserving leader, having built trust in the soldiers he led. This time though, he must lead from the back, a replacement commander taking his place with the troops.
As the battle begins, the new commander is shocked into paralysis by the violence and danger of the situation, leaving his troops directionless when they approach the outskirts of the town. Watching the breakdown unfold from the relative safety of the elevated treeline, Winters instinctively jumps up and makes to replace the captain in the field when he’s held back by his superior officer.
Good leadership is often built from a true understanding of the team’s culture, struggles, and motivations. When we work hard, demonstrate competence, and are able to build a connection with a team, an intrinsic respect and trust is built that can go a long way to moving a team forward. Like in the example above, good leaders, lead from the front. Major Winters himself advocates for a “follow me!” approach to leadership.
This is good advice, but I’d like to caution those of you who are tasked, or will be tasked with greater scope, that there are some pitfalls to this approach to watch out for both for yourself and for the organization you serve. Winter’s superiors knew it. That’s why they stopped him from entering the fray.
Leading from the front (or back) in steady times is relatively easy. Sure, we can all say business is a war every day, that sounds right until a pandemic like COVID-19 hits and throws the world upside down, collapsing travel and forcing firms to take action in days, what they might have planned for years in “peacetime”. We need to recognize that our leadership is tested when the storm comes, not when the sea is calm. I’m talking about these times, when circumstances urge us to grab our rifle and head down to support our troops shoulder to shoulder. Why should our superior officer hold us back if we try to do that?
First, when you get into the battle, it’s too easy to lose your bigger picture perspective. We humans like to, need to, focus, and when we focus in, as would be required to be effective on a task, we lose focus on other things. In aviation, many airline crews have crashed perfectly good airplanes because they became too focused on a small malfunction. As much as we want to help, someone needs to keep their head up. It’s no good sailing quickly in the wrong direction. Your superior officer holds you back (or you should pause and hold yourself back), because someone needs to maintain a handle on the progress of the current project and plan the next steps. Finally, I know you think you are different and that you can do it all, I’m telling you, you can’t, at least not for very long.
Second, more personally, stress and overwhelm can build quickly when you take on too much. People are often promoted because they can get more done, better, faster, cheaper than others. This validation of hustle and hard work selects and rewards the behaviours and it’s easy to see why people, having been rewarded, continue it even in new leadership positions that require a different skill set. If you are in a position of area management or team leadership where you’re responsible for the output but don’t actually work at the coal face, it can be irresistible to pitch in and “get ‘er done” with the troops. When crisis hits, and there actually is a lot of work to do (I know in some cases this is debatable, but that’s for another time), I’m telling you there is no way, despite how powerful you think you are, that your individual effort is going to save the day, the week, the month. You will burn out. You’ll get sick. Worse, to reinforce the first concept above, you can lose sight of what you are actually trying to do overall and negatively impact the results. It’s no good working hard on the shovel when you’re the one who’s supposed to call in the backhoe.
Additionally, and contributing to overwhelm, you can make things worse by pitching in. We’re all human. Fundamental to being a real part of the group is the empathy and compassion that goes hand in hand. More than another hand, especially in stressful times, often teams need a calm and confident leader to look towards to help them see the light at the end of the tunnel or the positive aspects of the current struggles. You’re not helping if you get caught up in the hysteria that can occur in times of crisis. Getting into the mud too deep can certainly contribute to you losing your cool and depriving the team of the calm and steady leadership they need.
Our working culture today, and media, reinforce the “lead by example” perspective. Band of Brothers, after all, told the story of the troops, not the generals. Today, front line workers are heralded as heroes (as they should be, that’s not a question for sure), but behind these heroes are others, less visible, organizing, planning, communicating and otherwise looking ahead to what’s next. Across the world, we’ve seen great variability in community responses to COVID-19, and while many societal factors affect mortality, there is no doubt that organized and careful approaches to managing the pandemic are critical to mitigation of harm.
You’ve been brought into a leadership position for your strengths and talents thus far. Leading by example does not mean doing what got you to your current role. The soldier is relied upon to get his job done, the front line worker, same. As you pitch in and support teams during a crisis and in the future, remember your primary responsibilities to yourself and the organization need to come first too. We’re all relying on you for that.