How to Leverage a Crisis to Position Your Career for a Promotion

Aug 18, 2020

By Sunday Tollefson, MBA, PMP®

"Being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are." - Michelle Obama, 2012 

Today we are going to dive into crisis leadership.  How does a crisis change leaders? Why does demonstrating leadership in a crisis set you apart from your peers?  This is important information you need to know to set yourself up for success in the future.  

As I write this, we are smack in the middle of a shelter-in-place order in many places including my own state. We have a pandemic on our hands. Almost every industry has been dramatically impacted thanks to the virus  

You may notice that there is a different style of leadership coming into play right now, in your business, in your company, in your residential community, your family, your government.  

You likely also see faces that are new to you, who are providing information and instructions to you and your peers, colleagues, or neighbors.  These are the leaders of the moment. They have our basically unearned trust in the palm of their hand.  

We all know what leadership is, right? We've all experienced leadership in many ways - as a consumer of the leadership, or as a follower, and we've all done situational or named leadership in our ways.  So what is leadership in crisis? Why is crisis leadership different? 

What's true for everyone during a crisis, regardless of their leadership role, is that, everyone is seeking a new kind of leadership, and a different set of skills and virtues than during the regular course of business.  Whereas you may have looked toward your direct manager for direction in the past, you may be paying more attention to someone higher in the organization – like your CEO - or your Mayor, your governor. 

You are likely seeking someone with knowledge, expertise, and relevant connections to allay fears . Maybe they are fears about your personal safety or your job. You may worry that there will be a sudden job loss for you or your colleagues. You may worry about housing, food, or basic human necessities. Or maybe you are worried about shifts in your industry, like a quick draw down of interest in your industry, or a ramp up that is far beyond your ability to meet the demand.  

Another aspect of crisis times that's different is the way everything shifts to some kind of other earth. During a crisis, norms are upended, time is shortened – and lengthened at the same time; it's basically a time warp.  

In any of these scenarios, people do tend to look to their higher leaders for direction.  And these leaders often defer to other specialists or leaders who have deeper insight into the cause, progression, or analysis of the crisis.   

For example, I see my state governor deferring to the superintendent of public instruction when it comes to questions about schools and academic work. He is also deferring to universities conducting research and publishing public health findings.  

When you are inside of a crisis, take a moment to observe how the leadership shifts. Notice how your manager responds with calming directives or asks everyone to wait for word from higher-ups.

Notice how the leaders in your company step up and serve as a beacon of hope and certainty with clear information even when it seems there is nothing to know. Notice which leaders spend their time accepting accountability, and when they point fingers and blame. Notice which leaders seem to care about and relate to regular people.

If you're a Phenom,  Pacesetter, or a Magician (if you don't know what I'm talking about here then be sure to take the Inspired Success career phase quiz), you've likely not had a lot of opportunity to step into leadership during a crisis. So instead of making naïve mistakes during a crisis when you are a senior executive, you can practice crisis leadership now 

If you are wading through a crisis of any kind in your company, industry, or world, this is a critical time to demonstrate your skill and maturity in managing matters. This is the time.  

Demonstrate your ability to stay calm, rational, stoic, and clear headed. This is the time for you to show your ability to command a situation and make difficult choices.  Give yourself the gift of time today to consider how you can improve your crisis leadership.  

Here are some tips for shining in a crisis: 

  1. Be Steady. Limit emotional expression - maintain your composure. 
  2. Be Human. But don't be robotic - be authentic and display your empathy. 
  3. Be Focused. Be like a surgeon - center on the primary issue, problem, paths to solutions. 
  4. Be Accountable. Acknowledge there will be unanticipated roadblocks and assure your audience you will deal with them. 
  5. Be Heroic. And that's easily defined: put people above profits. 

When you are able to stand up and command the situation, you draw at the very least, interest, and more likely, respect, admiration, and trust from your colleagues and your entire audience. You'll attract colleagues' attention. Say hello to that unique audience called followers. You'll have a followership, and a new angle to your personal brand. This is the moment for you to rise to the occasion. You'll need to use your courage muscle, but you've learned through experience, observation, replication, and mentoring how to exercise that.  

Take thoughtful, courageous, decisive action and follow through with great committed leadership. This will likely require you to put away that impostor syndrome. If this seems overwhelming or your impostor syndrome rears its ugly head, remember these words of the 34-year-old Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, "… realise that everybody is just a human being, and every job is the size of a person." Even if your action doesn't work out, others will see your dedication, your decisiveness, and fearlessness. These are the actions of real leaders, and they won't be forgotten. Crisis situations are where leaders fortify their skills and rise from the rest.  

Don't miss out on the opportunity in a crisis to observe those who rise to the occasion, as well as those who step back. In fact, derive the courage to step into an important unseen but needed action. Remember to model the good methods you see, and note how not to perform in these circumstances. I want you to use this crisis to show how you yourself can command the situation, maintain your resolve, and deliver resilience during a challenge.   

To summarize, watch your leaders and their actions during this crisis. Note how they style shift, and give yourself permission to do the same. See how you can step up yourself for promotion and demonstrate calm resolve while introducing caring, decisive crisis leadership to your skill set.  

Allow a crisis to boost your leadership skills, garner respect in your company, and prepare yourself for executive leadership.  

Let a crisis, let THIS crisis, reveal the best parts of who you are.  

© Sunday Tollefson



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