Sunday, November 30, 2008

Paying Attention Goes a Long Way When Leading During Crises

Every interaction is a form of confrontation---a clash of priorities, a struggle of dignities, a battle of beliefs.

--- P. Koestenbaum, In LaBarre, 2000, p. 222

White water rafting is an apt metaphor for surviving in our current environment. Times of crisis, which keep rolling in one after another, starkly show whether a leader can adapt or not. Times of crisis test the leadership within each of us regardless of position. Many don’t make it because of an unwillingness to let go of old assumptions and beliefs and be present to the new. Where are you as a leader in this regard?

For the majority of us, turmoil first comes as external and beyond our control. But, whether we like it or not, our adaptation challenge is the same as those who are in the depth of the chaos: we are left to scramble without having been there before. How can we get beyond the fear and atmosphere of negativity from the terrorist attack in Mumbai and the continued turmoil in financial markets around the world? How can we help those around us both at work and at home cope with the escalating level of uncertainty?

This is the ultimate test of leadership: dealing with the emotional upheaval (yours and that of those who look to you for guidance) and the lack of information and best practices upon which to draw.

Paying attention helps. Robert Quinn in his book Building the Bridge As You Walk On It calls this “detached interdependence”. It means paying attention to what’s happening, transcending a need to control and allowing others to find and express their full capacities. It means being humble and strong and open to others’ views, yet not being attached to whether they like us or not. Underneath the stance of “paying attention” is clarity of our purpose---personally and organizationally. People “get” leaders and managers who are inspired by a reason for being no matter how dire the external circumstances are. They will rise to the occasion.

That’s why it’s fascinating to watch what various leaders do in these unusually turbulent times. What they do is typically a direct expression of their leadership beliefs in relating to people and getting the job done. What they do becomes an internal moral challenge: to serve one’s own interests or those whom they serve. It is a challenging polarity, as Quinn likes to remind us.

An example is the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods. In confronting his firm’s role in causing people to die from an outbreak of listeriosis in August 2008, he demonstrated this moral choice. Michael McCain quickly closed down the suspected Toronto plant and apologized profusely. He repeatedly used words to the effect that “the buck stops here”. McCain did not finger point and he kept the lines of communication open with the media. His pain was obvious, showing his own vulnerability but at the same time his resolve.

In the December issue of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business McCain said he was doing what was right. “The core principle here was to first do what’s in the best interests of public health, and second to be open and transparent in taking accountability.” Although he emphasized that the handling of the situation was very much about his team not only himself (“It’s just what we are”.), he was reluctant to identify the obvious---his team was dependent on his core values and his willingness to be adaptive.

There is much more to the Maple Leaf story yet to be told. How McCain discovered the greatness within himself to “do the right thing” will become another interesting layer. How he struggled and the mistakes he made while trying to figure his way through the horrible situation will be most informative for preparing others when calamity strikes.

Quinn has some tips and comments related to leading and adapting during great uncertainty which likely mirror some of what McCain did:

--recognize that excellence requires you to go where you have not been before
--understand that leaving the comfort zone is terrifying
--in high uncertainty, you cannot rely on knowledge
--you must surrender your sense of control and begin to learn in real time
--in uncertainty and learning, you must continually clarify the desired result
--keep it simple. Establish a few operating rules, and move forward
--the learning process is improvisational; you must create as you go
--you launch a thousand ships knowing most will sink
--it is normal to be scared
--listen carefully to criticism
--forget self-interest and focus on collective success
--give yourself time to process feedback and get through the emotions
--trust yourself and others

If paying attention is a primary tool for stabilizing a crisis and leading effectively in general, being prepared is equally important. The Mombai massacre unfortunately revealed that India was not prepared, especially at the local level. The Taj hotel burned for more than three hours before firefighters arrived. Numerous police personnel were killed. The soldiers struggled for three days to gain control.

The recent crises in India (terrorism), the United States (financial implosion) and Canada (listeriosis outbreak) make one thing very clear: smart strategic and tactical planning and good governance are essential parts of a leader’s tool kit. Adaptive leadership is the thread that binds.

1 comment:

Connie said...

Excellent article - good reference point for organizations when faced with unfortunate circumstances.

With regards to the Maple Leaf incident - it will be interesting to track the impact of this approach on the brand moving forward.