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How to Lead During Times of Chaos

There’s lots of media talk about the British government being in “chaos” as a result of the “Brexit” vote. There’s a lot of exaggeration there – after all, the media is about sensationalism, since that’s what sells newspapers and media advertising. But there’s no question that many companies, churches, and nonprofit organizations experience times of chaos, and many times over the years, I’ve been asked to consult during these catastrophes.

During those times, I’ve helped them navigate through the storm. So the question becomes, how should leaders react when the ____ hits the fan? When everything breaks loose, what’s the best approach for righting the ship and getting the organization moving forward again? While each story involves complexity and time, here’s my suggestions from the start (and feel free to pass this along to our British friends):

1) The best leaders understand the business.  During times of crisis, everyone will step up with “advice,” and many of those ideas will be crazy. The best way to navigate the overwhelming tide of outside opinions and ideas is to know the business well. Know your team, and who’s the best in which roles. Know the organization’s structure and know how the business works. Industry, government, nonprofit, church – whatever, know it. Otherwise, you’ll be lost in the tidal wave of sincere but terrible suggestions.

2) Tilt toward action.  Too many leaders freeze in a crisis, and because of the delay, those organizations rarely recover. In the early days of a crisis, tough decisions have to be made, and I just might prefer making a wrong decision than no decision at all.

3) Keep the vision in front of the team.  Now more than ever, a powerful and compelling vision can inspire your team, customers, and donors. But you have to tell the story, tell it well, and tell it often.

4) Communicate.  Communicate to the team, and to the outside world. No matter how bad things may be, never stop communicating. Find the influencers in the organization and let them help tell your story. Perceptions will be created from the information you share. As a result, know that you don’t have to share everything, but what you share needs to be the truth.

5) Get outside advice.  Many churches, ministries, and nonprofits call me during a crisis, because they’re looking for advice on how others have handled similar situations. You need a bigger picture, so don’t be afraid to reach out to board members, other leaders, and respected voices. They key is to vet your advisors, so you know they have the experience and know-how you need.

6) Finally, stay in control.  Everyone is looking to you for confidence and encouragement, so don’t lose your cool, and don’t blow your stack. Keep your attitude in check – no matter how frustrated you may be. Don’t lecture people, don’t blow up, and don’t freak out. To a great extent, your attitude will determine the attitude of your team, so keep your head up.

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8 Comments

  1. I’m afraid, that if those are the 6 points to navigate the storm, then I think by definition the UK is in chaos!

    I have had a very difficult few days. Though I was born in the UK and my passport is an EU passport issued by the UK, my country, my home, my ethnous, if you will, is European. I was not allowed a vote. I watched from the sidelines. Horrified at the lies being told by one side, trying to catch the other side out for lying and only succeeding once (I’m no lover of Cameron so hoped for more). It was political civil war. I could go on, but won’t, just to say it is as if the 37% of the USA voted to abolish guns and it passed. Imagine the feelings of the NRA.

    Navigating in turbulent times is difficult. I did team lead one team for a year on a very difficult transition. A relative of mine, now living in Canada, suggested it was like a major problem in a company, when afterwards you need to all pull together. In that situation you can decide to leave the company. The problem in this situation is the vision. There are two polar opposite visions. It was a binary vote. But from this we can learn.

    What I think you have missed and is significant from this point of view is to build consensus. If you don’t do that you will inevitably have the polar opposite problem, and if that happens then I’m afraid points 1-6 become irrelevant. You have lost and chaos will ensue.

    1. Fair enough Richard, however, the fabled “consensus” doesn’t happen by magic. That’s why the leadership principles above help to set that stage. Lots of leaders use big (and rather vague) terms like “consensus,” but aren’t willing to put in the hard, daily work of communicating, making tough decisions, and casting a vision.

      1. Yes, I never said building consensus was easy. It’s probably the most difficult thing of all of them.

        I get really nervous of the phrase ‘making tough decisions’, I’ve made them myself and seen them made. Why I get nervous is that some of the time they end in success and some of the time in hurting damaged people. If the agency reaches it’s vision but people get hurt in the process then the agency has failed. That may be a European vs North American difference but success can never be achieved if people get hurt in my book.

  2. I’m not in the middle of an organizational crisis but I’m finding these points helpful for the personal ‘chaos’ surrounding me at this time. The main ones to apply at the moment… tilt towards action, keep the vision in front of ME, and to stay in control. Thanks.

  3. I do believe that the crisis in the UK due to the Brexit vote is largely a meme promulgated by the Remain side to scare the masses. The financial markets appear to have mostly shaken the event off. Your points are well taken, Phil, but in spite of our best efforts the powerful oligarchs seem to invariably end up victorious over people of principle. Witness our female presidential candidate who shall remain nameless. People hate The Media because eveything now is spun to support a homogenous elite apparently in driven by the desire to destroy the foundations of Western Civilization. The “chaos” in the UK is nothing compared to what the eventual outcome would be if the one world globalists have their way, which they may still one day achieve. I for one am glad to see that at least for now Jolly Old England has pushed off the day that we refer to London as Islamabad-on-the Thames.

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