A crisis can make a CEO a transformative leader

If you are going to experience the wash, rinse, and spin cycles of a crisis, you might as well gain from the ordeal.

If you are going to experience the wash, rinse, and spin cycles of a crisis, you might as well gain from the ordeal. The most notable potential achievement is to emerge squeaky clean and transformed as a leader – not hung out to dry.

All crises – corporate, personal, and public – offer the opportunity to demonstrate transformative leadership. Those who accomplish it become symbols of success.

Consider: Winston Churchill was a has-been back-bencher largely ignored by his own party. Yet he became a 20th century giant through the transformative leadership forced upon him – and his embrace of it – and his nation by the Nazis. Much the same can be said about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the Great Depression and World War II. More recently, few crises rival the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the ensuing legislative juggernaut of Lyndon B. Johnson, accounting for voting rights, Civil Rights, Medicaid and Medicare, and the Great Society. Those from a man once called the biggest opponent of Civil Rights in the US Senate. Transformation, indeed.

How do we know the power and appeal of transformative leadership? Let's look at how glaring is its absence. President Barack Obama's most ardent supporters surely wish he handled the Great Recession more like FDR's New Deal and less like Jimmy Carter's sense of malaise.

Stepping up to lead an organization out of crisis, and grow it so the crisis is all but forgotten, is not left to happenstance, pedigree, or good genes. Crisis managers know that the best ways to achieve this opportunity is through planning and preparation. The more preparation before the crisis, the more clearly everyone knows their roles. A crisis will hit; you should prepare. Now.

Let's focus on the CEO. If the CEO is the designated out-front person for your company, as the CEO should be, media training, careful messaging, and knowing the maelstrom facing the company are crucial elements to eventual success. Accepting the CEO may have to apologize for someone's actions he or she had nothing to do with, and take responsibility for them, is not a quality all CEOs come with, but can learn.

Some CEOs fail in this very public role. Penn State University's was fired in the face of its college football scandal. The chief of the US General Services Administration stepped down after the agency's training methods looked more like expensive parties. The head of JPMorgan Chase & Co. started well, getting out ahead of the news about his bank's $2 billion trading losses, but has since been wounded by further revelations. So far, the leader of the US Secret Service retains his job, but the hooker scandal in Colombia may yet claim him as another victim.

There's no guarantee, of course, that the best CEO and the most resourceful training methods will produce transformative leadership. But it's almost certain that without that as a goal, and without early preparation and a clear game plan, superior leadership will be unattainable.

Steve Bell is partner and director of public affairs at Eric Mower + Associates. Read his blog here.

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