We are all crisis managers today. Whether you are the CEO or you lead a team. Whether you’ve been furloughed or laid off. Right now, we are all making gut-wrenching decisions every day. A crisis is a crisis, no matter your role or title. Let these eight crisis management steps be a guide to help you develop your plan, and make those tough decisions.
Of course, there are thousands of resources available to help us with crisis management. There are inspiring books, such as Leadership: In Turbulent Times, and online classes, including Harvard’s Professional Development Online Courses.
The Ultimate Crisis Manager
For me, I’ve found several practical crisis management examples from someone who was a true expert at it: George Washington. It’s easy to overlook a historical figure from 250 years ago. Finding the connections to today’s events can be hard.
Ennobled by adversity and leading by example, he had been dismayed and depressed, but never defeated.
But Washington biographer Ron Chernow hits the mark when he wrote, “There was scarcely a time during the war when Washington didn’t grapple with a crisis that threatened to disband the army and abort the Revolution. Ennobled by adversity and leading by example, he had been dismayed and depressed, but never defeated.”
Through my Washington Leadership Program, I’ve had the chance to study Washington extensively. The one-day professional development training session explores his magnificent leadership during the Trenton-Princeton Campaign in the winter of 1776.
Here are the eight successful crisis management steps that Washington displayed during that fateful winter. His heroic actions led to the stunning American victories at Trenton and Princeton. More importantly, they helped save the American Revolution.
1. Remain Dedicated to Your Mission
On July 4, 1776, the American colonies were in full rebellion. But within five short months, the American Revolution was almost over. After successive losses trying to defend New York, Washington’s army had been whittled down to a mere 2,500 soldiers by early December. Chased across New Jersey, Washington took shelter on the western side of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. Starving, sick, and without proper clothing or ammunition, troop morale was at an all-time low. Congress was questioning whether Washington was the man for the job.
Now more than ever, it’s critical to keep your focus on your organization’s mission.
But Washington, and the men who stayed with him, were steadfast in their mission: To obtain liberty from an oppressive government. Washington often referred to this as “The Glorious Cause.” It cannot be overstated how galvanizing this mission was to Washington and those American patriots who risked everything.
Now more than ever, it’s critical to keep your focus on your organization’s mission. While your short-term goals may be changed, your mission has probably not. Let your mission guide you and your team.
2. Continue to Gather and Act on Intelligence
Despite the imminent prospect of defeat, Washington stepped up his intelligence gathering. On Dec. 15, he personally viewed the British-held town of Trenton from across the Delaware. He also deployed several spies throughout the countryside. This intelligence led Washington to believe his army could make a secretive, proactive strike. If successful, it would change his army’s fortunes.
It’s easy to have a “bunker mentality” during a crisis. But keeping your eye on the competition is essential to finding new opportunities.
3. Keep Your Emotions Intact
Washington was a master at controlling his emotions, especially in public and in front of his troops. His self-control stems from a book he memorized as a youth: “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Washington’s ability to remain calm during battle gave confidence to others around him.
These are stressful times and we must find ways to vent our frustrations. For me, that’s going for a run. But we must also work to keep our emotions in check, especially if we lead other people. Keeping our emotions in-check brings two major benefits: One, it prevents us from making irrational decisions. Two, it provides confidence to others around us.
4. Find Ways to Innovate
Based on good intelligence, Washington decided to initiate a surprise attack against the Hessians, Britain’s paid mercenaries guarding Trenton. As his battle plan unfolded, he made a critical decision: He ordered all of his cannons at the head of his army’s advance. Typically, artillery is placed in the rear. Washington made this change to bring as much devastating firepower as possible at the very outset of the battle, instead of using it later on.
Washington’s order created several logistical challenges for his men and it slowed their march significantly. But in the end, this unorthodox move proved to be a key to the American victory.
Crisis management leaders need to look at every resource and think about how they can be used differently. All ideas should be on the table
5. Find Time to Think
Washington was not an especially gifted writer or orator. But he was a critical thinker and a continual learner.
In the immediate aftermath at the Battle of Brandywine (Sept. 1777), the American army was in full retreat. Men were scattered everywhere. The British were in hot pursuit. One American general, desperately needing orders, could not find Washington, so he sent out a young aide. After galloping down a wooded path he found Washington alone sitting under a tree. Stunned to find the commander-in-chief alone during such an important time, the young aide hesitated. Summoning up the courage he asked, “Your Excellency, what are you doing?” Washington had a one-word reply: “Thinking.”
Even in the midst of complete chaos, we need to find time to think.
We can assume Washington found time on the banks of the Delaware in 1776 to think about ways to create success. Even in the midst of complete chaos, we need to find time to think. We need time to determine how we can help our teammates, our customers and our organization. If we don’t carve out time to think, we’re constantly in a reactive mode.
6. Trust Your People
Unlike the highly trained British army, the American army was a hodge-podge of ordinary citizens. Case in point: British Army privates had an average of nine years of service. American privates had only a few months of active service.
Moreover, Washington did not have the luxury of selecting highly seasoned officers. Nor did he have the resources to train his men. Instead, he had to constantly build up the confidence of his army and give extremely clear directions.
At the Battle of Trenton, Washington gave a leading role to Major General Nathanael Greene. This was a head-scratcher; a month earlier Greene was responsible for the devastating losses of Fort Washington and Fort Lee. But Washington had a keen eye for talent. He also trusted Greene’s overall competence. Washington knew that to win the war he needed to depend on others around him.
Leaders know they cannot do it all. They must delegate and trust others to help them in their mission.
7. Treat Your People with Respect
Richard Neustadt, Presidential Scholar at Harvard University, observed the following about Washington: “It wasn’t his generalship that made him stand out. It was the way he attended to and stuck by his men. His soldiers knew that he respected and cared for them and that he would share their severe hardships.”
Historian and author Edward G. Lengel noted this trait as well. He described Washington’s leadership during Valley Forge as “sacrificial,” and that “Washington took great care in seeing that his soldiers were well housed.”
The best leaders know how important it is to give respect to everyone – not just during a crisis – but all the time.
8. Act Boldly
Washington’s plan called for a secretive dawn attack against the Hessians. Three separate units of American troops would cross the Delaware River on Christmas night. Once across, the units would march several miles and then converge at Trenton, surrounding the Hessians.
Although Washington would have numerical superiority, he would be facing the most highly trained professional soldiers in the world. The Americans would need speed, stealth and precision timing – this after marching miles in the dark during a ferocious snowstorm. Certainly, a lot to ask of half-starving and ill-equipped men.
If Washington and his men failed at Trenton, the American Revolution would be over. And Washington would go down in history as an epic failure.
Despite these challenges and fears, and knowing how much was at stake, Washington took action. He put it all on the line.
Take Action with Your Team Now
If your team needs to build up its resiliency or its ability to achieve a vision, we can help. Our Washington Leadership Program is a one-day immersive training session. We use George Washington’s historic 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and victories at Trenton and Princeton as a learning platform for business leaders today. Participants stand in the footsteps of history. Expertly researched, we review the timeless leadership skills Washington used to build a resilient and winning American army.
For questions, or to schedule a session for your team, contact Matt Spaulding at 404-324-6031 or firstname.lastname@example.org