Unexpected acts of hatred, violence, and destruction are occurring more frequently. These dark crises impact everyone in an organization, but wise leaders can contribute to a better emotional climate if they know how to respond.
During his two terms in office, President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated what great leaders do in times of crisis. As each terrible act of domestic or foreign violence has unfolded, and as our nation is divided by racial and religious hatred, the president has served as healer-in-chief. While his words and deeds will fail to soothe everyone, his presence in leading us through difficult times helps to reassure us that the center is holding and that we will somehow weather the crisis as we hope for better times.
While this role has always fallen to American presidents, be it JFK providing stability during the Cuban Missile Crisis or George W. Bush calming the country in the wake of 9/11, it seems that during the past eight years Obama has played it far more often than any predecessor in recent memory. By one count he has spoken after mass shootings 16 times during his administration. This duty no doubt weighs heavily on him, but the grace, strength, and skill with which he performs it can serve as a learning lesson for all leaders.
They Are Looking to You
We now have a new interpretation of crisis. In the past, a crisis for leadership would refer to a devastating financial failure, the loss of a key supply source, or the departure of a crucial staff member. This would require leaders to step forward and express confidence that the situation would be overcome, and to offer a strategy that would influence followers to pull together on the path to recovery. Those types of crises remain, but joining them is the dark crisis. This refers to destructive acts of mayhem such as mass shootings, suicide bombers, or violence committed by the police or against them. We hardly understand why they happen, let alone have any rational or analytical methods of response as we might in more familiar crisis situations.
At some point in their careers most leaders will need to manage a crisis. If they have participated in a leadership development program, they may have strategies upon which they can draw to take the organization through a difficult period. However, these strategies are typically better suited to more traditional crisis situations. Simply offering a roadmap that leads to better times is no longer sufficient. How can leaders best respond in the dark crisis?
What Leaders Can Do
This is something I have struggled with personally. When these types of crises strike, there is a strong sense that something needs to be said. It is hard to find the right words or appropriate response, and sound advice on how to react in these situations is exceedingly difficult to locate. An emotionally intelligent leader will be more adept at sensing when others have strong feelings. But what direct action can help, other than learning from the occasional stories of leaders who model desired behaviors? In her article “Being a Good Boss in Dark Times,” Jennifer Porter offers some suggestions for responding to a dark crisis.
- Realize it is acceptable to acknowledge one’s own emotions during these difficult times. When leaders share their personal feelings of shock, sadness or numbness it can help colleagues address their own feelings, emotions we are often told should be kept out of the workplace.
- Accept that your words or actions will likely cause some discomfort and that whatever you do or say will be far from perfect, but that’s normal. Speaking from the heart means much more than getting it just right.
- Create a zone of psychological safety where workers feel comfortable asking each other how they feel about what happened. No one should worry that they will be inappropriate, ridiculed, or embarrassed by speaking freely.
- Rather than feel despondent or hopeless about the future after tragedy strikes, reframe those emotions and channel them into a stronger resolve to build a resilient organization capable of supporting workers’ emotional needs.
- Place a momentary hold on business and shift conversations to more difficult topics. Yes, we all have important business to attend to in our organizations, but in the wake of a dark crisis our daily routines and deadlines are less important than giving ourselves time to share what really matters.
Despite any advice we may receive for how to best respond in a dark crisis, most leaders are never really prepared for these events. It may truly be the case that the only way to fail is to do nothing. Leaders may wish to remember that, according to Porter, leadership is about much than strategic planning and operational excellence. She writes that “A leader sets the emotional tone and example – in good times and perhaps more importantly in bad.”
Beyond Winning or Losing
In almost any election of government representatives, no matter the level, claims of leadership rarely connect to any realistic expectations. Instead, they devolve into attacks on opponents for their lack of leadership or boasts of one’s leader-like capacity to create transformative change. Leaders either win or lose. When Obama is accused of failing to provide leadership, or the sorry state of the world is blamed on his inability to lead, there is an appalling lack of insight into what leaders do. It’s hardly about being the solo savior of the world, even for the most powerful. Among other critical skills, it’s about having the presence to rise up in a crisis, particularly a crisis where simple solutions are nonexistent, in order to reassure people there is hope. Weather-related crises can certainly result in the devastating loss of property and life, but leaders can allocate resources to help communities begin the restoration process and offer hope for better times. There’s no easy fix for lone wolf mass murderers and terrorists. For these dark crises, perhaps the best a leader can do is offer words and comfort to shine some light onto a path through the darkness. It is a lesson worth learning for students of leadership—one we hope never to need.