When I was growing up, there was a colloquial phrase that captures the essence of defining moments in leadership. It was when one “aww-shit” wipes out a thousand “at-a-boys.” There are many forms of defining moments depending on your leadership role. At the supervisor level, the issue may be dealing with a difficult personnel situation that impacts the whole team. In a manufacturing setting, a major crisis can spring out of nowhere, such as a fire or explosion. When the company’s performance is heading south, the defining moment is whether the CEO can turn things around. Our nation’s presidents face such difficult moments often in dealing with foreign affairs as President Obama has discovered in Syria, or President Bush with 9/11.
There are three factors that can make your ability to handle a defining moment a big time “at-a-boy” as opposed to a catastrophic “aww-shit.” The first is planning in advance. One can learn a lot about handling defining moments through crisis management training, although not everything can be predicted and simulated. I found these crisis management simulations very effective in Shell in preparation for an unknown defining moment. My book on Developing a Leadership Plan Become a Great Leader emphasizes, “What really big thing have you ever achieved without a plan?” When you are caught off guard the ship goes rudderless or runs aground by a poor reaction, your leadership role is in peril.
The second factor rests with your character. Defining moments often bring out competing values that require prioritization. When the plant blows up, do you focus first on who/what is to blame, or dealing with the injured, their families, and the community. Sure, everyone wants to know what went wrong in order to prevent a future occurrence, but it has already happened. So, the first critical step is securing the safety of those involved in dealing with containing the crisis. Your people will long remember if you brought support and empathy to them and their families during the early part of the crisis. Bottom line is that people come first in a crisis. Timing of what you do and when you do it comes down to your values. Unfortunately, many people do not really know their values well. One of the steps in building a leadership plan involves getting really deep into understanding your personal purpose and core values.
The last factor is your value bank. If you have built up a lot of “at-a-boys,” then your followers will give you some relief and support during defining moments. If you have taken the attitude that I am the boss and people will follow, then good luck as you will need it. A value bank comes from fulfilling your value propositions that you have made to your followers. A central theme of my book is developing these value propositions in concert with your stakeholders so that your leadership efforts are in satisfying their needs whether customers, shareholders, employees, or the community in which you operate.
Have your experienced a defining moment? What are your thoughts on how best to handle?