What we can learn about crisis management from Admiral Stockdale

 In Thought Leadership

Those of you who share my passion for new ideas and approaches may have read Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great’.

He analyzes the reasons that only a select few businesses and business people are able to make the leap to greatness.

There is enough good stuff in there to inspire a year of blog pieces, but one section caught my attention. It’s about a US Admiral called James Stockdale who survived seven and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He spoke mesmerizingly about his experiences and, most relevantly here, his state of mind.

On the one hand, he had to confront the reality in front of him. In a crisis, he explained, you can’t daydream your way out. The problem with looking past the present is that when things don’t improve, your optimism will, inevitably, disintegrate.

However, you have to retain hope. Because without it, it is so much harder to withstand the pain of the present. His experience was, of course, extreme. But I have spoken to many of you about your experiences during the pandemic, and it’s clear that the same paradox applies to business.

When demand slows, profits disappear, and the future looks bleak, there’s no point in burying your head in the sand and pretending everything is going to be OK. It’s crucial to accept reality. To act upon the needs of the moment and to do what’s necessary to keep you and your business afloat.

But you also need a vision for a brighter future. To know that, at some unknown point, the storm will abate and the good times can return. It’s a balance between optimism and reality. Between the short and long-games. Between firefighting and planning. Between actively responding to events as required rather than reacting passively.

I have a client who runs a speech writing business. 90% of its clients speak at live events around the world, from conferences and weddings to TED talks to town halls.

When lockdown began around the world, his pipeline disappeared. Clients whose speeches were already written cancelled their bookings.

But my client had bills to pay, staff to manage and a family to feed. Within three weeks he had rebranded as a ‘Copywriting’ business, re-trained his team to write web copy, created a new website and pricing structure, and, effectively, started a new business to fight the short-term fire.

He knew this wasn’t part of his vision, but he couldn’t just wait for the pandemic to go away. As restrictions eased, he was able to balance the two sides of the business. Once the initial crisis was over he made plans for the return of speeches, developed new marketing ideas and ensured the operational part of the business would be ready for the upturn.

He never forgot what made his business and his team special, but it is only now, 18 months later, that the events industry is creating enough demand for the speech writing business to return to its healthy state.

Giving the appropriate balance to the short and long-term needs of the business is crucial – especially in a crisis. But there’s also a third layer. How you communicate your approach and balance to your team?

It’s so easy to throw yourself completely into saving your business that you forget to take the most important part of that business with you. It’s also easy to sugar-coat bad news just to keep people onside. If Covid has taught us anything, it’s the importance of clarity and transparency. There’s no point in building a wildly optimistic story to your team if you are fighting for your life. Nor is it worth scaring them unduly.

You have to appear calm and composed; a Captain who can steer the ship through the most turbulent waters. You don’t just need to explain what you are doing, but why. A crisis is a journey, and the Stockdale paradox is equally relevant to your leadership. If you can diagnose where the team sits, and frame the right communication to take it where it needs to go, you’ll maximize your chances of taking them with you.

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