How to lead in a political crisis, social unrest or just a shambles
Updated: Jan 20
You would think that as I near my 9 year anniversary of living in the United States (one more year and I get a set of steak knives!) that I would have learned how things are done by now. There are Things That We Just Won't Talk About. These tend to be Things That We Will Instead Rage About On Social Media.
Two weeks ago I watched an attempted coup on the US Capitol live on TV. I was shocked but, maybe weirdly, not at all surprised. I've lived through violent government crises. The coup during my time in Bangkok was much heavier on the military presence than we saw in DC, but was also very Thai and polite and greeted with some shoulder shrugging, along the lines of...OK, there's a coup then, we need to change the route to drive to work. I was living in China during the Urumqi protests, when a government crackdown shuttered social media and foreign TV overnight, never to be restored in my time living there. I had government officials at my door checking my papers, probably because a westerner in Shanghai had the potential to be a troublemaking journalist. Note to anyone who thinks that having a Twitter account suspended for 12 hours is a deprivation of free speech: try being a citizen living under THAT regime.
So it wasn't the first time in a foreign land seeing an insurrection. Being a foreigner, and therefore an outsider, allows you to damp down the fear and freaked-out-feeling of the whole experience by being able to approach it with a kind of curiosity. Like, oh I see, this is how they do it here.
But I would think if it were the country I'd grown up in, with the deeply divisive confederate flag being flown in the place that created my laws, the broken glass and crushed bodies in a building that I had associated with democracy... I think it would feel very different. Regardless of where I stood on the question of right or wrong, justified or unjustified, who exactly was to blame, I would be even more deeply shocked, and saddened, and shaken to my core. I would want to talk about it and process it. But when it comes to "how they do it here" that seems to be... not the way. Even mentioning in polite company that January 6th happened seems to be a no-no. It gets swept under the carpet faster than you can say "did you hear that guy in the horns will only eat organic food?" Express your dismay and pain and outrage on Twitter? Sure. Say the word "coup" in a group setting? No, absolutely not.
I find it strange, but I'm an alien so what do I know? To each his own. Maybe I'm out of touch and the same thing happens at home when the words "Boris Johnson" are mentioned? In my experience, though, British people are far more likely to relish an opportunity to criticize. The Australians don't call us whinging Poms for nothing.
As you can tell from my stories above, I seem to be something of a crisis magnet. And I have found that living through a crisis takes a set of skills that most of us have never been taught, but pick up through necessity. But leading people during a crisis? There's a whole other thing. Truth be told, it's not the part of the role that you give much consideration to when you're offered the promotion and you're planning what handbag you're going to buy with your first pay check.
Terrorist attack on public transport, social unrest, pandemic, attempted hostile Board takeover that played out on TV, incessant restructuring and job losses, and yes, a coup, I've seen them all, even though they weren't ever in a job description. I've had people looking to me for answers where there are none, and explanations where, as we say in the UK, I'm buggered if I know.
It's so tempting to be the ostrich with its head in the sand: saying nothing is always the safest bet. Because say nothing and you can't say anything wrong. But there's a reason why the cliche is "fearless leader." Because, in my experience, what people need you to sweep under the carpet isn't the incident, but rather your own fear: of opening a can of worms, of saying the wrong thing, of being exposed as a human being who doesn't have all the answers. There's no doubting it's harder, but they need to hear SOMETHING.
Even if intellectually you know that nobody really knows how to do this stuff, it can be intimidating and make you doubt yourself when you're faced with the reality of leading in a crisis. There is no fearless leader playbook. But here's some things you can try.
Acknowledge what's happened/happening. Like, really
If it's something huge, don't wait until the team meeting in 4 days time to say something. Say it now, while it's happening. Even if it's only to say, this is happening and we'll talk about it more in 4 days time. I believe that people want acknowledgement from their leaders, not to feel like they've been reluctantly forced into saying something because the house is burning down around them.
I saw a TikTok that made me hoot last week. It was a take on a team leader starting a meeting referring to "the ermmm... situation that... we all saw... play out... and we need to acknowledge...anyquestionsorcommentsno?good. Now let's review the deck"
I found it hilarious because I've been there and half-assed it myself. We've all had the best intentions and then sputtered out with:
The horrendous events of yesterday.
What we all saw on TV.
What it's hard to avoid right now.
The scenes of recent days.
My advice? Give it a name, whatever "it" is. For a start, it breaks the spell. It gives people permission to raise it as a subject. Once the words "Black Lives Matter protests" are uttered by someone in authority, they're OK to be referred to. For second, if you work in a global job, it can be incredibly confusing for anyone located elsewhere, and even make them feel excluded. What ARE they talking about?!
Know the party line
If it's something major, and if you work in corporate, the unsung heroes in Corp Comm will have spent hours with the CEO and/or executive team crafting the company position. Know it. Not because it has to be your personal position. Not because you aren't allowed your opinion. But because, as a leader, to your team, you ARE the company. So they are more than likely to ask you about it as if you wrote it yourself. They will also ask you questions about wording that you haven't even picked up on, the words that have either been deftly and deliberately chosen, or are the result of three different members of the executive team editing in parallel. So read it as they would, and have your answers ready.
If you work in a business where the employees feel like they have a relationship with the CEO, be even more vigilant because they will take the words even more seriously. Working at Delta, anything that started with "Ed says..." was similar to the 10 Commandments.
You're allowed your own perspective. In fact, you need one
To be clear, I don't mean present the company position and then debunk it entirely with your own take. "These idiots said... but I think..." isn't going to win any fans from anywhere. But, in my experience at least, what people are looking for is authenticity and humanity. The person behind the position statement that lives in the same confusing, crazy world they do.
A line like, "this company stands in solidarity with the social uprising resulting from the death of George Floyd" is fine as a starting point. But what about you? What do you have to say? What has it made you reflect on? What has it made you realize matters? What have you decided that you actually have not enough insight or real understanding to talk about, so you'll leave your comments at your sadness and empathy for the people who've been most severely affected? Any of these options, or many others, are acceptable. But say something, or you sound like the corporate mouth piece that you almost certainly don't want to come across as.
Which leads me to...
Don't be scared to say you don't know. After all, you probably don't
Two years ago, I decided to explain to my team what had gone horribly wrong in the business we worked in. Distilling the story of a failed corporate strategy, hostile boards and activist investors , down to half an hour for a team whose average age was 25 is still something I'm not totally sure how I did... The thing about explanations is, next comes questions. Open yourself up to being someone who knows something, and maybe you're someone who knows more? But I honestly didn't. I had poured pretty everything I knew into that 30 minutes.
Here's one of the most treasured leadership lessons I've learned. Under these circumstances, saying "I don't know" will not open up the ground and have you descend into the jaws of hell. It will not make your team think you're stupid, or misguided, or slippery, or trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Making up a load of nonsense, or giving an answer to a question that wasn't asked, on the other hand, might just have that effect. The trust that comes with being a leader willing to put themselves in front of a team and say "have at it" tend to outweigh the occasional bit of shrapnel that comes your way.
I have always favored:
I don't know know and I wish I did!
I don't know, but I can try to find out.
I don't know the answer to that, but I do know...
I don't know exactly, but if I read the words in the announcement, they sound to me like...
For what it's worth, I have found to be less successful:
I don't know [stop here]
Great question! [stop here]
Ask what everyone is thinking and feeling. But hearing crickets is normal
Is there a saying about leadership being a two-way street? If not, there should be. Especially, back in the day when there were meeting rooms and auditoriums with actual people in, and you were standing at the front of one, it can be such a relief to get to the end of what you have to say that you will likely want to rattle on to all the other business at hand. But resist the temptation, because the job isn't quite done.
Sometimes having had the invisible seal broken will give tacit permission for the people who care most strongly to share their own views. A lot of the time people will be just relieved it (whatever it is) is out in the open and now we can talk about something else. But don't guess, find out. I always wanted to be the kind of leader that my team knew cared what they were going through, so if they ever wanted to be heard, they could be. And if they wanted to be silent, that was OK too. After all, who am I to disrupt the Things That We Just Won't Talk About vs the Things That We Will Rage About On Social Media.