Leading Through a Crisis

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2009

What is the one major stumbling block to navigating/leading through a crisis such as we are collectively experiencing right now?  It’s generally NOT a lack of creative and workable solutions.  It’s getting people to move off the dime, to break through their complacency, fears and/or self-righteousness so that they will take action.

According to John Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School and the author of several international bestsellers including, Leading Change and his most recent book, A Sense of Urgency, complacency is the mine that sinks most ships.  I would add to that fear of change and inflexible thinking that leads to rigid - there is only one way to do things - type of thinking.  We can see the latter right now on the political scene in Washington.  I ask you, how in the midst of the most severe financial crisis most of us have ever experienced, can 100% of the Republicans on one side and 100% of the Democrats on the other, be so right about their positions that they vote in unified blocks? The Republican members of Congress (in this instance) are examples of a unified block of what Kotter would call, “NoNos” (see below for Kotter’s definition of NoNos).

So, what does it take to break through complacency, fear and/or self-righteousness so that people will take action?  Kotter believes that it is “a true sense of urgency.” Do you remember when Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon in 10 years?  He painted a picture that both frightened and inspired.  He said that the USSR was already racing to the moon and could beat us there and if they could do that he implied that they would beat us in other ways – including threatening us with their missile technology.  He inspired us by saying that he knew we could achieve this seemingly impossible goal based on our previous accomplishments – we had it in us to achieve the impossible.  Similarly, You can see President Obama trying to build his case for making change now. He hasn’t minced words about how dangerous the current economic crisis is and he’s trying to inspire us by linking what he believes we can achieve to our successes from the past.

To create a sense of urgency Kotter recommends the four following tactics:

1. Bring the Outside in.  This means to draw on external data to give a cogent rationale for why change is necessary.  Too frequently, companies succumb to their own hype and self-importance, which leaves them vulnerable to being overtaken by upstarts.  For example, in the past four years, both Google and Apple outflanked Microsoft.  Microsoft had a habit of believing that it was the best and became smug and complacent.  To bring the Outside in you must “reconnect internal reality with external opportunities and hazards.”  And you must, “bring in emotionally compelling data, people, video, sites and sounds.”  Logic is not sufficient; you need to touch people on an emotional level if you want to truly engage them.

2. You must also “behave with urgency every day.”  It’s imperative that the leaders of an organization must demonstrate their own “sense of urgency always in meetings, one-on-one interactions, memos, and email and do so as visibly as possible to as many people as possible.”  This sense of urgency must be demonstrated without resorting to using “anger” or by displaying excessive “anxiety.”  Calm resolve is the emotional stance best suited.

3. You must “find opportunity in crisis.”  It’s essential to stay “alert to see if crises can be a friend, not just a dreadful enemy, in order to destroy complacency.”  Operating from fear tends to elicit complacency because when people are afraid they regress and hold on to old tried and true beliefs and behaviors.  Embracing the “opportunity” in a crisis evokes a creative energized response.
 
4. “Deal with the NoNos.”  This is probably the most challenging aspect of creating urgency.  No matter the organization, there are people who simply disagree with any change that isn’t initiated by them or for which they have some philosophical difference.  No amount of logic or passion will make them move off their dime.  I agree with Kotter that you must “remove or neutralize all the relentless urgency-killers, people who are not skeptics but are determined to keep a group complacent or … who create destructive urgency.”  Obviously because Obama can’t remove the Republican NoNos, he will attempt to neutralize them which he can to some degree, because the Democrats have the votes to maneuver around them.

I highly recommend reading Kotter’s books (see my book recommendation list).  They provide a cogent and highly readable blueprint for “leading change.”