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4 Things a Leader Must Do in a Crisis

Ray Rice hit his fiancé in an elevator. The video is shocking, and the response by the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell has been infuriating to many. How this will all play out, no one knows at this point. It feels as if we are only in Act One.

As a leader, you will almost certainly face at least one crisis during your career. In business, “stuff rolls uphill.” Knowing how to effectively handle a crisis may mean the difference between survival and devastation. The keys are:

  • be truthful
  • be pessimistic
  • be definitive

In one of my previous companies, we created and ran a program for future Fortune 500 CEOs. Our faculty consisted of the most respected chief executives of a generation: Anne Mulcahy, A.G. Lafley, Jim Kilts, Carlos Gutiérrez, Jack Welch and more than two dozen others. One topic that would consistently come up in discussion was what should a senior leader do when confronted with a crisis. While their individual approaches were as personal as their leadership styles, here are four things that top CEOs stressed any leader should do in a crisis.

1. Get the facts. Quick. Ask your direct reports to get every detail of the facts out on the table. Then ask again. During a crisis, those who work for you at all levels of the organization will be reticent to bring you more bad news. But finding out later will often lead to a far worse outcome. Be relentless in your pursuit of what really happened. The good, the bad and the ugly.

2. Come clean with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You must act as though all of the facts you have now discovered will eventually be public — and they almost always will be. Isolated crises turn into full-blown organizational meltdowns not typically from the initial act, but from the response to those acts. Heed the lessons of Nixon and Clinton. It’s the cover-up that leads to impeachment.

3. Estimate the broadest possible fallout from the crisis. Then triple it. I remember a specific discussion with Welch and a small group of CEOs about this topic. Jack said that, in nearly every single public crisis he was confronted with in a five-decade career, the final damage was far worse than anyone had estimated at the onset. By being aggressively pessimistic about the outcome from the beginning, he found his leadership teams were much better prepared to deal with the ultimate reality of the situation.

4. Realize that someone big is going to fall. “I wasn’t aware of it!” “It was the act of a rogue employee.” As a leader, it is impossible to keep your eye on everything. You can’t control the actions of everyone you lead. So, when a crisis occurs, it is tempting to rationalize that it wasn’t your fault. How can you or senior people on your team reasonably be blamed? But, in the end, the organization and the public will demand definitive action, and someone senior will ultimately take the hit, including potentially you. The more you resist, the angrier the villagers will get, and the more heads they will go after. Make the difficult decisions earlier than later, or your options will quickly turn from bad to worse.

Here’s hoping you navigate your entire career without ever having to face a crisis. But the odds are against you. Be prepared to act truthfully and decisively, and you may just make your way through the storm.