Before I begin, my hope is that all of you are staying safe and healthy during these unprecedented times. The world and our lives have been thrown upside down, and as we strive to redefine what will surely be a “new normal,” we are also getting to see firsthand what leadership during crisis is all about—the good, the bad and the ugly.
What does true leadership during crisis look like? To me, there are seven key overarching attributes:
Perhaps the most important of these attributes is communication, which includes frequency, relevance, and the ability to inspire confidence. Ultimately, a leader’s effectiveness and credibility rest on trust and this is built on transparency, consistency of message, delivering on commitments and demonstrated empathy to the issues at hand.
Business leaders today can benefit from understanding how great business and political leaders in the past rose to the occasion and demonstrated great leadership. And how today’s leaders apply those lessons will help determine how their organizations emerge from this crisis and reposition themselves post pandemic.
I’ve chosen five individuals from wartime, politics and business, whom I believe have demonstrated extraordinary leadership in times of crisis. The five are: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lee Iacocca and, perhaps surprisingly, Elon Musk. I’ll mention their special attributes, recognizing that, in some cases, those attributes may not be evident. While my comments below do scant justice to these brilliant people, the common themes are clear.
As you read through the text, think about leadership in your own organization, starting at the top and including your leadership team. Are they demonstrating the attributes listed above? What could be done differently? How can you contribute in a constructive way to better leadership in your organization?
Abraham Lincoln – The Crisis: Emancipation and the Civil War
A few sentences are woefully insufficient for the man generally regarded as the best president of the United States. Lincoln unquestionably displayed all of the attributes listed for great leadership during crises. He was an eloquent speaker – simple, consistent, and clear. He acquired trust, loyalty, and respect, and he inspired people to sacrifice, despite the hardships.
Lincoln displayed both vision and great courage in his Emancipation Proclamation, allowing black soldiers to fight for the Union against the Confederacy. This was the precursor to the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery and indentured servitude illegal. He communicated his vision clearly, concisely and passionately, and kept the Union from splitting during the war.
Lincoln’s high level of emotional intelligence enabled him to overcome countless obstacles. He was able to channel his emotions and showed great awareness of the needs and feelings of others.
Sir Winston Churchill – The Crisis: Britain and World War II
Hitler had all but conquered Europe, and Britain was brought to her knees. As prime minister, it was Churchill’s vision of a free and rejuvenated Britain and his great communication skills that inspired the country: “I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” His communication skills in simple terms to a beleaguered nation, his charisma, courage, determination to resist and win (“never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense”) inspired his people with the will to resist and fight back against all odds. He called for action and was able to execute. He effectively used his emotional intelligence, demonstrating empathy and social skills in relating to his people in a way they could understand.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt – The Crisis: The Great Depression and World War II
It was FDR’s vision for the country after the Great Depression and his ability to communicate and execute that put Americans back to work and pulled America through the crises. The great social programs and utilizing the unemployed to build the country’s infrastructure were perhaps his greatest contributions. He was into his fourth term as president when he brought the USA into World War II and ensured the defeat of Nazi Germany.
FDR’s communication skills were outstanding, utilizing new radio technology to communicate and inspire a nation. His execution was incredibly competent as he brought together a diverse group of outstanding people from both parties as part of his cabinet to oversee the initiatives. FDR’s courage was also evident in overcoming the polio that had paralyzed him as a young man. His empathy for people, particularly the poor, and his ability to relate to people, developed during his convalescence, demonstrated his high emotional intelligence. Interestingly, FDR had an extremely curious mind and his desire to understand the facts and challenges enabled a clear and, accordingly, deep understanding of the issues to be addressed.
Lee Iacocca – The Crisis: Rescuing Chrysler and Thousands of Jobs
“Leadership is forged in times of crisis.” Iacocca had the vision to recognize the huge opportunity for the great Ford Mustang, an iconic development for sporty sedans and a car that is still going strong. After being fired by Henry Ford II for his blunt and courageous willingness to speak up and to challenge, he again demonstrated courage in taking on the CEO role in bankrupt Chrysler. He negotiated a bailout from the Federal government and saved thousands of jobs.
Iacocca showed amazing vision in recognizing opportunities for the profitable turnaround of a failed company with old models and a beaten-down brand image. This included introduction of the K cars, which revolutionized production with a common chassis for a range of vehicles. He was passionate in his convictions and recognized the need to “confront painful realities … and communicate the truth.” Iacocca had great communication skills, the courage to speak his mind and take to bold actions. He believed in the need to be curious, to step out of his comfort zone, to listen to other challenging ideas and manage transformational change.
Elon Musk – The Crisis: Fighting the Giants, Losses and Cash Flow
Of the great technology visionaries and innovators, I chose Elon Musk over Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for Musk’s extraordinary vision, courage, passion and determination in taking on the planet’s auto giants with electric car technology. Lacking the scale of operations and years of development expertise, he battled all odds to build Tesla into a formidable manufacturing entity, facing numerous crises: technical problems with robot-powered assembly lines, losses piling up, ongoing cash flow problems that threatened to plunge the company into bankruptcy, meeting payroll, and run-ins with the investment community for inappropriate comments and tweets.
Musk displayed huge empathy for worker safety: “I’ve asked … to meet every injured person as soon as they are well.” He’s been able to identify others’ emotions and change the way he works with people to better lead, understanding how words impact groups and individuals. He built fellowship with workers, often being on the factory floor and sleeping there at night. Musk’s vision has extended beyond (literally!) to SpaceX, the first organization to land satellite launchers back on their launching pads, and he’s now developing the Boring company for super-fast underground inter-city trains.
There is much to learn from the leadership styles of these remarkable individuals. While balanced differently, the common attributes are evident – with striking lessons for our business leaders of today. Again, I urge you to ask the key questions: Are your company’s leaders demonstrating the attributes listed above? What could be done differently? How can you and your team contribute in a constructive way to better leadership? I’d be happy to have the discussion with you on how to coach your leaders through this crisis.