During big-time, gut-wrenching crises, organizations have a tendency to do one of two things. They jam their Florsheim's into their mouths to the ankle. Or they hunker down, duck their heads, and try to ride out rough weather.
Babbling and clamming up are both huge mistakes.
A textbook example of a leadership vacuum is the initial U.S. response to the global economic crisis. Congress fell back on what they do best: empty political theater. The presidential candidates began shooting at the sky -- hoping to hit a bird. Our president entered the witless protection program. And CEOs of financial institutions took, on advice of counsel, the clam up approach.
All this bred a terrifying feeling of, "Who, if anyone, is in charge?" It's hard to imagine more pathetic, craven performances by the very people we place in positions of leadership.
With real money at stake, the results were predictable. Financial markets fell off a cliff. Your September 401(k) and IRA losses show the velocity and distance of this economic power dive.
There's a lesson in all this for you and your organization. When times get tough, ask yourself what your audience wants and needs to hear. And then get out there and talk to them in person. Be a leader. Show the flag and say, "Follow me."
Speak in plain terms about what your organization is doing to weather the storm. Leave out the "message platform" BS and overly-optimistic cheerleading.
Lots of your advisors will urge caution and silence. They'll say, "Let's not jump the gun and say something wrong or something that we’ll have to justify later."
Don't listen to them. In times of maximum stress, tangible, visible, leadership is more important in the moment than being 100% right.
Here's the downside of clamming up. Uncertainty produces fear. Fear, left to fester, produces paralysis. Once paralysis really sets in, getting people moving again is incredibly difficult.
Years ago, when I was a senior speechwriter in a Fortune 100 company, massive business problems began producing real fear across the organization. The company was edging toward paralysis. I was part of a small task force asked to recommend a strategy. We said, "Get the CEO out into the company -- speaking plainly about the problems and taking questions." By the time the roadshow ended, he had talked to tens of thousands of employees. It worked. Levels of fear and anxiety went down -- and people got back to work.
When bad times come, you’ll face the leadership test. Step #1 in passing this test means holding your team together with your presence and your candid, believable words.