Tiffany Sauder: What I’ve learned in leading through crisis

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Crisis is a frustrating word. You secretly hope (at least I did) that you will be the one leader who gets to spend an entire career without having to face something significant. That somehow, you’ll be perfect—and you will never need to lead through an event that registers as a “crisis.”

There are a lot of articulate quotes about being in a crisis.

From JFK: “Great crises produce great men and great deeds of courage.”

And, “We presume that we would be ready for battle if confronted with a great crisis, but it is not the crisis that builds something within us; it simply reveals what we are made of already,” said by Oswald Chambers.

And a few funny ones, like, “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full,” by Henry Kissinger.

I’ve found my own natural response is not nearly so eloquent. Mine looks more like a panic attack, followed by a tornado of decisions and a very long nap.

I was 29 when I went through my first work crisis. It was triggered by the financial collapse—my leadership skills and my agency were wholly unprepared for this test. Because of this, I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years reflecting on what we did wrong, planning for how we’ll do it next time, and absorbing from experts the right thing to do.

Here’s what I learned:

There are crises of the self-made flavor. Those situations where you had total control, you just made a mess of it. Those look like a series of bad decisions, bad hires, miscommunications, ignored warning signs, etc.

And those crises that come from external forces. These, you did not inflict on yourself. You just got caught up in the wake of the situation. The most prevalent ones that have touched all of us recently are COVID and the economic recession.

No matter the cause, the remedy follows a shared formula.

 Confront the brutal facts

If you’re a student of Jim Collins, you already know about the Stockdale Paradox: Maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

How can it be that you can hold complete hope side-by-side with complete ownership of the worst facts about your current situation?

It is the only way. As a leader or entrepreneur, if you aren’t prepared to entirely own the worst of your situation, you don’t have the entirety of the situation understood. Only when you see the real field of play can you find a way to win.

 Communicate, even when you have imperfect information.

It is tempting to hide when you don’t know the answers. In the absence of information, each of us makes up stories in our own minds.

Determine a communication cadence and stick to it. Knowing when information is going to be made available begins to lessen the pressure within the organization or team. And always create an opportunity for questions to be answered.

What if you can’t answer the questions? Use the following framework. You have three categories of information: things you know you know, things you think you know, and things you don’t know.

When asked a question, tell the audience which category the question falls under. This will calibrate your shared confidence interval. It’s impossible to know the answer to everything right away. Don’t pretend. Choose transparency and determine the next steps.

 Timing matters

Get clear on your plans, define your triggers for executing those plans and publish them for accountability. Identify an accountability partner. Make sure someone else knows what you said you would do. It’s easy to talk yourself out of hard decisions when it gets to the deciding part.

Even when you know what you’re doing isn’t working, making a change in an environment of uncertainty can be very difficult.

The right decision, too late, can still be the wrong decision.

 Values are not seasonal

Now, more than ever, your team is watching to see if you really are what you’ve been saying you are. It can be tempting to turn into a robotic cheerleader when things get hard. What teams really need are leaders whose values and humanity are on full display. Truth and focus are powerful tools when leading a team to victory. When it feels like everything is against you—and we’ve all been there—be honest. Be clear. Be unrelenting.

This, too, shall pass.•


Sauder is CEO of Element Three, an Indianapolis-based marketing consultancy, and host of the podcast “Scared Confident.” She is also owner of Share Your Genius.

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One thought on “Tiffany Sauder: What I’ve learned in leading through crisis

  1. Excellent article and counsel on how best to manage a crisis. I read Oswald Chambers writings daily. He wrote faith-based memoirs that have been edited into a series of 365 daily devotionals, called “My Utmost For His Highest”. Highly recommended for taking one’s faith to a deeper level.