Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Leadership 101: Calm in a Storm

Great leaders project calmness, even during crises. Your team doesn’t benefit from you losing your cool when times are tough. They need the feeling that things are being handled, even in tough situations.

One day while working at Quick Solutions we got news that a client had funding for our project yanked by their venture capital board. As a result, a large team of 28 needed to get down to 14 in a matter of three days. The entire team on the client site knew the bad news, and they were understandably flustered.

Tim James, our sales manager, calmly and quietly told me and the other studio leads “It’s 4:30 now. By 5:30 we’ll have a plan for each of the folks, and by 6:30 you’ll have called all of them to let them know what they’re doing tomorrow and where they’re going next week.”

Tim’s quiet, calm demeanor helped us quickly accomplish what we needed to: get coverage for all our folks, and get them quickly informed of the action plan. We met the deadlines, and we got our folks reassured that they’d still be valued members of our group.

Contrast that demeanor with your stereotypical Dilbert-style boss. Exploding in a fit, or getting wound up and emotional rarely solves problems. Furthermore, your team quickly picks up on the emotional explosion. Productivity plummets, rumors begin to fly, and your team’s morale falls through the basement.

Take a hard look at how you react to crises. If you’re an exploder, or someone who gets tightly wound, then you need to change that. If nothing else, force yourself to separate yourself away from your team for a few moments so you can settle down and get your head on straight. I’ve literally gone and sat in a stairwell for a couple minutes so I could collect my thoughts.

I can’t emphasize this enough: You need to have the presence of mind to get your act together. Even telling your team “Hey, this sucks. Give me a couple minutes to think. I’ll be with you shortly.” is a completely acceptable response. You’re showing your team that you’re actually in control of yourself instead of just exploding.

There’s another critical aspect of Calm in a Storm: The ability to figure out what a real crisis is. My military background comes in to play here, combined with my time as a system administrator for a global computer reseller. Some of my career experience is working on sensor systems used to keep bad guys from killing good guys, and from maintaining systems for a company where downtime meant, literally, tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue every minute the system was down.

If people aren’t dying, if something’s not on fire, or if your company is still able to do its job, then the problem you’re experiencing is likely not a crisis. There may be a massive inconvenience, and the problem may be epic in scope, but you need to keep and force some perspective on the issue. Yes, you likely need to address the problem in a quick and focused fashion, but is it bad enough that you need to keep your team in overnight on a Friday evening?

Likely not.

Don’t get me wrong: There are times when you do need that level of escalation to fix a problem, but as a leader you need to protect your team by calmly triaging issues and allocating resources in a sane fashion to fix them.

Calm reactions on your part as a leader are crucial to keeping your team from spiraling into a panic attack. Keep your head on straight, stay cool, fix the problem.

Calm in a storm. It’s critical.

Update: Find links to this series of posts here.


Brett Veenstra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brett Veenstra said...

It's certainly easier to be a leader when you keep your calm in a storm: everyone is looking to move away from the suck.

You won't have to use much motivation and "vision-casting" to get buy-in with options that make sense.

Good article Jim, thanks for sharing!

Brian H. Prince said...

I regret every time I have lost my cool as a leader. It has only happened a few times, and I wish I could go back and fix it. It was usually out of sheer frustration with the situation. But I know the team takes it personally. And it scares them, because they don't feel in control. They think "If the guy in control is freaked out, maybe I should be too."

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