Ever been in one of those situations where chaos springs forth and in the swirl of madness you look at everyone else’s face and see that blank look? That frozen look of “what do we do now?” Those situations get really unnerving when one of those clueless faces belongs to your supposed leader.
Choices in moments like that are limited. It could be a project imploding, a meeting running off the rails, or a client deal exploding in your face. Normally we look to our leaders for direction in those moments. Unfortunately, they’re not always capable of leading us through those situations (and if you need confirmation of that, see the poll about how your skills compare to your boss’ at the bottom of this page).
What then? What happens when it’s the “leader” who is freaking out? Your choices are pretty limited. You can either stand there frozen just like the rest of the team or you can act. Let’s discuss the latter – meet the situational leader.
Many of you are probably too young to remember when Reagan was shot and Al Haig proclaimed “I am in control here.” The swirl of chaos of an assassination attempt had everyone scurrying. Haig tried to assuage concerns on the part of the public and the press by asserting “I am in control here.” Unfortunately his words were seen as overstepping his bounds and did little to calm those around him.
Why? Why did Haig look like a buffoon in this situation? Probably because leaders are about action, not words. Perhaps had he spent more time driving tasks and organizing the government rather than asserting his position to the press, Haig would have been seen as a leader in the crisis.
So when chaos strikes your team, how do you avoid pulling a Haig?
Step 1: Stop. Take a step back. Breathe. Unless someone is actually bleeding, you have time you can spend. Slow the world down. If a meeting is imploding, ask for a break. Bad decisions are made in haste. If you have a moment to reflect, take it. If you don’t have a moment, ask for one.
Step 2: Assess. Objectively evaluate where you want to end up. If you’re not the formal leader in the situation, simply ask your leader this question. Ask them where they want the team to end up. Next assess where you are and what the barriers are to getting where you need to be. Avoid emotion and deal with facts.
Step 3: Plan. Determine what actions you need to take to overcome those obstacles and make it to your destination. Keep it as simple as possible. Be open to creative solutions (like “let’s end this meeting and reschedule when we’re better able to address your concerns.”).
Step 4: Act. This is where Haig screwed up. Take positive steps toward your chosen resolution. Make those activities you selected with your team actually happen.
And remember: you don’t have to be the formal leader of the team to take these actions. I recognize all this is abstract at the moment. Allow me to provide an example.
We had a huge contract we were in the process of nailing down with a major vendor. Unfortunately the vendor wasn’t meeting some of its service levels and we were being less than prompt in providing them information and approvals they needed to do their job properly. Needless to say our meeting was getting a little heated (okay… a lot heated). I was one of the people throwing gasoline on the fire which only made things worse.
A member of my team (who in their mind had less of a personal stake riding on the outcome of the negotiation) saw that vein pulsing on my temple and knew things were about to get fairly hideous (nuclear holocaust hideous to be precise). His suspicion was affirmed when he saw the same vein pulsing in my vendor counterpart’s temple. In that instant, he decided to be the leader that would help us navigate this difficult situation. Fortunately he didn’t simply pull an Al Haig.
Stop. He gently interrupted the conversation and said he’d like to take a quick break since we had been meeting for a couple of hours. He said it was probably time for a bio break and that he wanted to review a couple of documents for a moment. The rest of the group eagerly agreed simply to diffuse the tension.
Assess. He asked me offline what outcome I wanted. I said I wanted the %^$#&*@ contract signed today and I wanted the vendor to start meeting their @%#$&$ service levels. A few moments later he “accidentally” bumped into my counterpart at the refreshment table and casually asked him what he would see as a good outcome. My counterpart replied he wished he could just get the information he needed to be able to get his job done for us.
Plan. When the meeting resumed, my team member asked if he could clarify some things “he didn’t understand and wanted to get straight.” (Yes, he was playing opossum in order to be disarming. Opossum. That’s a funny word). He asked questions of a couple of other team members on both sides of the table. It became pretty clear that the vendor was happy and able to meet service levels if only they had a few pieces of information from our side.
Act. After asking his questions, my team member promptly shot off some requests via Blackberry. Within fifteen minutes, he had a few emails trickling in in response to his requests. And yes – it was the info the vendor needed.
This team member of mine did all of us proud (and also forced me to reflect on my failure as a leader in that situation because I had let emotions get the best of me). He became the informal leader. He put himself in charge and stayed laser focused on solving the problem at hand. He was objective and open. The contract was signed and the vendor was able to give us exactly what we needed from that point forward.
If the situation calls for it and your leaders aren’t leading, step up and drive toward an outcome. Don’t pull a Haig – just stay focused on the facts and the outcome. Make it about solving the problem, not about making yourself look good. Simply by driving toward that outcome you make yourself look better than you ever could imagine.
What have your experiences been with this dynamic when leadership fails and someone has to step in to fill the void? Share your stories please!