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Leading Through a Crisis Day by Day

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We’re now in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis and a growing economic crisis. For leaders, it can be hard to know the best approach to managing the day to day — and managing for the future.

Enter this week’s guest, Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard.

McNulty has studied crises such as 9/11, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Ebola outbreak in Africa, heading to ground zero of such events to see how leaders react. And he’s learned some lessons — most notably, that it’s important to be proactive, not reactive. And that it’s necessary to truly lead — not just manage.

Of course, even the best leaders never lead alone, and they never lead in a vacuum. Now, during the coronavirus outbreak, just like during any other crisis, strong leaders must think about leading in four dimensions — down, up, across, and beyond. In this episode, McNulty explains how to follow this approach, while emphasizing these three big points:

  1. Stay true to your purpose.
  2. Continually build trust.
  3. Invest in others.
For Further Reading
Eric J. McNulty (@richerearth) is associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Kennedy School of Government. He is also coauthor of You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). You can learn more about his work and his perspectives on leadership at his website.

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Transcript

Eric McNulty: Everyone needs to realize this is a culture-defining moment for your organization. These are the stories that will be told for years, much as they were in the response to 9/11, the firebombings in London — those kinds of major events that stick in people’s minds.

Our prehistoric forebears, when they heard a rustle in the bushes, all attention went right there so you could determine if it was going to eat you or you were going to eat it. So you knew what to do next. We’re not worrying about those kinds of crises so much these days. And it’s really important to take that broader view to know who are all the stakeholders, what’s the bigger picture, what are the different dynamics.

Be credible, be reliable, always be ready to invest in your relationships. And be sure that it’s clear that you are here for the greater good, not for self-interest.

Paul Michelman: I’m Paul Michelman, and this is MIT Sloan Management Review’s Three Big Points. Each episode, we take on one topic that leaders need to be on top of right now and leave you with three key takeaways for you and your organization.

We’re now in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis and a growing economic crisis as well. For leaders, it can be hard to know the best approach to managing the day to day — and managing for the future. Enter Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard. He’s studied crises from 9/11 to the Deepwater Horizon spill to the Ebola outbreak, heading to ground zero of crises to see how leaders react. And he’s learned some lessons, most notably that it’s important to be proactive, not reactive — and to truly lead, not just manage. He calls this approach meta-leadership.

Eric McNulty: We know that in crisis, the human mind is hard-wired to narrow its focus. Our prehistoric forebears, when they heard a rustle in the bushes, all attention went right there so you could determine if it was going to eat you or you were going to eat it. So you knew what to do next. We’re not worrying about those kinds of crises so much these days. And it’s really important to take that broader view to know who are all the stakeholders, what’s the bigger picture, what are the different dynamics at play. And so that “meta” in front of “leadership” is there to prompt you, to remind you as a leader the first thing you need to do is take a step back, take a deep breath, [and] look at that larger picture to understand where what you’re seeing fits into a broader context.

Paul Michelman: For McNulty, leading well through crises begins with the leaders themselves knowing who they are.

Eric McNulty: What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Your experience, your education — all the things that make you a distinct and unique individual? Because each crisis affects every person in a slightly different way. So to be successful leading in a crisis, you need to be grounded yourself and ground your team cognitively, psychologically, emotionally.

Paul Michelman: Of course, even the best leaders never lead alone and never lead in a vacuum. Now, during the coronavirus outbreak, just like during any other crisis, strong leaders must think about leading in four dimensions — down, up, across, and beyond.

Eric McNulty: You’re the boss. How do you lead a team? Very, very important. But it’s only one direction in which you can lead. You’ve also got to lead up to your boss — be that a CEO, a board of directors. Are you going to put your customers up there in where you lead up? These are people over whom you have no direct authority but where you may have tremendous influence to help them make better decisions, help them understand what you’re seeing so they get a more nuanced view of the situation. Because synchrony of activity is so important in a complex crisis across … the other departments and functions within your organization. It’s important that sales and marketing and finance and legal are all working in harmony during a time like this so that you avoid as many unintended consequences as possible and then beyond to your external stakeholders.

Paul Michelman: In crisis, you need to look not just at what is happening in front of you but also to plan ahead. McNulty even recommends building out teams to look at different time horizons — one month, six months, one year — while you as a leader can focus on other things.

Eric McNulty: So [in] the day to day, let’s make sure everything’s getting done as it’s supposed to do — we’re following the plan. But in order to do that, you have to have clarity of what’s the objective — what’s our larger mission here? And as a leader, you’re constantly needing to clarify what’s going on and where are we going. Think of yourself in the back of a Jeep trying to take a photograph as you bounce along a country road. You don’t just focus once; you are continually adjusting the lens to keep things in focus. So, what are you looking to focus on? First is purpose — what is that larger reason you’re all engaged in this activity together? What job is your company, your customers, or your community hiring you to help them do? Chances are it’s not specifically your product or your service. They’re hiring you to help them be better connected with their customers.

Paul Michelman: This particular crisis is different in many ways from discrete events like a terrorist attack or an oil spill. Because it is a public health and economic crisis, says McNulty, it dislocates people cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally — and leaders need to stay grounded in all three of these realms.

Eric McNulty: One of the things we talk about a lot at the NPLI is what’s known as the emotional basement. And that is another one of our inbred instincts that we as humans have. When we’re faced with threat, our triple-F — freeze, flight, fight — response kicks in. It kicks in automatically. It is instinctual; you cannot stop it. But you can control how you get out of it. And when that triple-F has taken over, you’re in survival mode. You’re not making good decisions; you are not evaluating things rationally. That emotional basement is a real trap. You will not do good things there; you’ve got to be able to get out and get other people out. So three deep breaths. Anything where you can demonstrate self-competence — not confidence, but self-competence — tells your brain you’re no longer in survival mode and helps you therefore get out. What you’re trying to do is be in an anticipatory mode. You’re trying to be proactive, not reactive.

Paul Michelman: As you direct your attention to the times ahead, it’s important to accept and to lead with the idea that we are not returning to the specific conditions we remember but moving into something new.

Eric McNulty: Resilience: to be able to bounce forward through adversity. I don’t think of resilience as bouncing back. There is no “back.” Clocks don’t go backwards. Calendars don’t go backwards. We’re moving forward. And the ability for people to move forward with hope is when you see resilience helping them bounce forward through that and then building trust. Every action, every decision you make throughout this crisis, is either going to build trust or degrade from it.

Paul Michelman: McNulty cites a recent example.

Eric McNulty: I was on the phone with a company the other day. They’re in the office products business, office technology, and they have seen how one part of their business shut down overnight because nobody’s in the offices they used to serve. However, another part of their business jumped right up because now they had support people working from home. And they said, “Boy, this is the thing — we’ve been talking about digital transformation for two or three years now — this is the thing that’s really going to accelerate it. We can see [by] talking to our customers what they’re going to be looking for from us. As this evolves, as it unfolds, we’ll begin to rebound. So now we’re making the moves to be ready to do that. We’re going to de-emphasize one set of things, emphasize something else, make sure we’ve got the infrastructure, the people, the processes [so] that we’re ready to go.”

Paul Michelman: All right, if we are changing course in our business, and things are different than they used to be — can we still measure success in the same way?

Eric McNulty: Right now, we’re all kind of having to recalibrate a bit. And so I think you want to craft appropriate metrics. It may be not so much your salespeople, not in the sales they’re generating, but how many customer contacts are they having per day to make sure they’re still staying engaged and not just cleaning up their files and rearranging the desk at home. If you’re an organization that has any engagement or well-being metrics, look at those really carefully and figure out how you’re going to get feedback on those now. Look at retention in terms of, who do you want to make sure you’ve got on board or you’re able to bring back quickly when things are ready to ramp up? You’ve identified those, and that’s clearly in place. I think you’re really looking to see what are we going to need to be ready with to accelerate when things are ready to come back — and that could be [during] the lull over the summer or in the longer haul when you get a vaccine a few months from now. What are the pieces that are going to have to be in place? And therefore, how do we measure our progress in getting there?

Paul Michelman: And remember: Fight the urge to rush back into business as usual.

Eric McNulty: There’ll be a tremendous pressure to move forward quickly to recoup some of the losses that we’re seeing right now. A couple pieces of wisdom I would give people now. One is, as you’re turning things off, think about what it’s going to take to turn them back on — what needs to be in place? What changes might you want to make? Who’s going to need to be there? — so that you don’t have to wait to flip the switch, because it’s never as easy to turn things back on as it was to turn them off. Any organization that has gone through even a short-duration crisis has seen that. And with that notion of wanting to accelerate when you come out of this, the work to do now is, what processes can be streamlined? What protocols can be changed? What people do we want to make sure are in place?… You’re using some of this downtime to actually get smarter, better, do your training for the next race, as it were. And realize things are going to be different — there are people who are never going to want to go back and work in your office again. So think [about] what changes that’s going to require and how you get more expert in managing that kind of workforce going forward.

Paul Michelman: That’s Eric McNulty. And now, three big points on leading through a crisis day to day.

Number one: Stay true to your purpose.

Eric McNulty: Keeping that larger purpose in mind gives people meaning, which is critically important in a time that’s as chaotic as this. Think about your values…. You’ve all got a good values statement, I’m sure. It’s in your annual report; it’s on a plaque on the wall somewhere. You’ve got to make sure you’re actually living into those values, because people are looking now more than ever — more than ever — to see if you are true to your word, true to your beliefs, [that] what you say is what they can count on.

Paul Michelman: Number two: Continually build trust.

Eric McNulty: First of all, you’ve got to be credible…. People have to believe that you know what you’re talking about when you’re saying something, that you actually have the expertise, the knowledge — you have a way of knowing about it. You don’t have to speculate, and you’re not making things up, but you’re actually credible. People know that you know what you’re talking about. You’ve got to be reliable. So if you say, “We’re going to have more information tomorrow,” give people more information tomorrow.

Paul Michelman: And number three: Invest in others.

Eric McNulty: Invest in people. This is a great time to build relationships with customers, with suppliers, just by talking to people, with your associates. Be there and say you care about them as people — you care about their health, their economic well-being, all the aspects of their lives. If you think about it as the numerator of the equation, the denominator is demonstrating that you are committed to that larger goal. We’re all in this together. This can’t be about you as an individual.

Paul Michelman: That’s all for this week’s Three Big Points. Remember, you can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and wherever fine podcasts are streamed.

Three Big Points is produced by Mary Dooe. Music by Matt Reed. Marketing and audience development by Desiree Barry. Our coordinating producers are Michele DeFilippo and Mackenzie Wise.

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