4 principles for leadership in times of crisis

Reflecting on the Cuban Missile Crisis and how leaders can employ the lessons learned to manage a national emergency


“All the world’s a stage,” opined Jaques in William Shakespeare's, “As You Like It.”

And as we have seen in the past, crisis brings leaders to their moment on stage.

The current pandemic should cause leaders to reflect on the lessons learned from past crises in order to help manage the complexities and challenges of an ever-evolving situation.

Few examples of exemplary crisis leadership can outshine that of John F. Kennedy’s leadership team during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
Few examples of exemplary crisis leadership can outshine that of John F. Kennedy’s leadership team during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

Few examples of exemplary crisis leadership can outshine that of John F. Kennedy’s leadership team during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis was rife with miscommunications, existential threats, and miscalculations but, ultimately, came to a peaceful conclusion.

To illustrate these leadership opportunities, let's examine what made Kennedy successful and how we can incorporate the key principles employed during that emergency – crisis management, conquering fear with trust, working in a team of teams, and focusing on what’s past the horizon – into our leadership ethos today.

Crisis management

Crisis requires immediate action, often with limited information and time. If we had all the time in the world, the crisis could never push us up against a wall.

The impulsive reaction for some in times of crisis is to enact a leader-centric command presence or command-and-control leadership model. This needs to be resisted. Rather, leaders need to provide support and guidance while empowering the down-line leadership to make values-driven, mission-focused decisions.

Initial actions to manage problems begin with defining scope, scale and priorities. Clearly articulate the goals and initiate necessary actions. Empower decision-making down through the organizational structure. Almost as important as deciding what to do, is deciding what not to do.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy sought the “we’re all in this together” mindset and requested creative solutions from the team. Kennedy empowered the decision-makers with a voice and demonstrated to them how powerful their role was in the final outcome. Kennedy required a unified and aligned decision, free from bias and unilateral opinion.

As anyone who has been involved in the Incident Management System (IMS) will attest, once a plan is ready to be released for the next operational period, every group or division supervisor is asked if they can support the plan – not if they like it, but if they are able to support it.

Conquering fear with trust

Fear and trust are the two countervailing forces of organizational leadership and are amplified in times of crisis.

Fewer fears can surpass the threat of nuclear annihilation – the root fear for Kennedy’s team.

The cure for fear is trust, and fear is rooted in the unknown. It is an insidious agent working to undermine organizational objectives.

Understanding that fear comes from many places is central to this discussion. Fear of the crisis on a personal level, fear of the unknown, and fear of not meeting the expectation of the organization, community or others can have crippling effects. Fear seduces members by letting them seek the path of least resistance as a mechanism of survival.

To alleviate fear, leadership should work to stop the panic and hyperbole and seek to manage misinformation through transparent decision-making processes. Investing in building trust within your organization takes time; make the commitment.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy demonstrated that you need to trust your team. Trust is created by demonstrating discernment, judgment and equity. This trust is tempered by reasonable, rational and moderated responses during normal times. Crisis amplifies the need for demonstrated trust and, in turn, reduces fears. Trust is the variable that allows you to lead through a crisis, versus just managing it.

Pushing the fear out of any organization is a critical task to empowering members’ potential, abilities and talents. No organization can survive, let alone thrive, in fear.

Team of teams

What is a “team of teams”? Instead of maintaining a traditional structure in which people work in hierarchies based on a function or a formal business unit, an organization operates as a constellation of teams that come together around specific goals.

As Kennedy discovered, crisis reveals your leadership team. Kennedy preferred open dialogue and transparency, all of which contributed to a sense of fairness and trust in the ultimate decision.

The team of teams approach unleashes hidden organizational potential. It reduces the need for, or dependence on, hierarchical management. It replaces the single-point leader system with highly adaptable networks capable of tackling complex tasks effectively.

Management shouldn’t try to do all the thinking, but rather transition to an all-in, fully engaged organizational culture that produces idea flow and embraces empowered decision-making. Single-point decision-making models are single points of failure waiting to happen.

This is not the time for “fake it til you make it.” Decentralize and create a highly adaptable organizational structure. Once the immediate emergency has been mitigated or is being managed, it's time to evaluate who exemplified organizational leadership, who struggled, and who fell flat. Landing flat-footed in times of a crisis becomes less of a personal matter and more of an organizational predicament.

A sure sign of well adept leadership is seeking information and opinions from diverse throughputs of information. Further, they admit to their team when they do not have all the answers. Remember, no one is expecting you to have all the answers.

Looking past the horizon

Leadership and the necessary associated management practices require bending the horizon. We need to anticipate what’s just beyond that horizon.

Focusing on the horizon requires you to navigate and prepare for the future. Work in increments. Find and repeat successful outcomes. Monitor your strategy. Do not allow you or your team to fall behind the curve and operate from a position of problem-solving. Problem-solving doesn’t produce long-term benefits; it prevents short-term losses. Ask, what will the evolving crisis require us to engage in when it comes to the next operational cycle or week, month, year?

The challenges will continue to evolve. Reflect on past challenges. Ask yourself, what practices delivered results? How can these practices be adapted and applied to our future challenges? As George Patton attested, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

As a leader, stay positive. Once fear, doubt and insecurity creep in, it becomes a contagion of its own. Don't let negativity and self-doubt prevent steadfast resolve in the face of adversity.

Even if the crisis isn’t unfolding as your best-laid plans had you believe it would, adapt. Evaluate past experiences and other outcomes against other leaders’ past tribulations, just as I have done here with Kennedy. Identify patterns, clues and tangential information that can all be connected into patterns to determine your horizon and the best course of action.

Kennedy famously said, “When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Let us use this current crisis to find opportunity and stand resolute in our abilities to exemplify leadership in our time of crisis.

Again, if all the world is truly a stage, make sure your performance is a memorable one. Make sure in the time of crisis, you are prepared and take the long view.

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