Financial Post: How to manage crises — one man’s view

Written by Garth Roberts for the Financial Post
Published: Friday, April 23, 2010

It’s rare to read a book where the introduction is almost worth the price of the book all by itself, but in Bill George’s 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, the introduction succinctly explains the recent financial downturn with great clarity and simplicity. He doesn’t pull punches and names names.

But don’t stop at the introduction.

Bill George,  a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, teaches a course on leadership which is based on his own executive experience in the real world of business. As the former chief executive of Medtronic, he boasts a spectacular track record and has been named one of the top 25 business leaders of the past 25 years by PBS. His other awards and recognition speak to his long and varied career.

Test of leadership

It’s in the introduction that Bill George writes that, “There is nothing quite like a crisis to test your leadership. It will make or break you as a leader.” He then outlines a variety of crises to take the reader through his 7 Lessons. While most of us will never operate in the executive leagues where George operated, the lessons apply to any business leader.

For example, in lesson one, Face Reality, George writes that “leaders often go into denial about the urgency and severity of the challenges they’re facing.” When was the last time you went into denial in terms of the challenges of your business or your life?

Using a variety of companies that were in crisis, George shares the experiences of leaders who tackled crises and won, even after being in denial of the situation. For example, he outlines how Warren Buffet, when he stepped in to steer Salomon Brothers to safety in the 1990s, demonstrated what courageous leaders do, even when their personal credibility is on the line.

I was impressed, while reading 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, by George’s clear and concise writing style as he detailed corporate challenges, infighting, and victories. The story ins easy to follow; it is even easier to accept the lesson each exemplifies. You actually begin to visualize leaders in crisis.

George points out the dangers of leaders who stay in their office towers and who never have the benefit of using all their senses – touch, smell, sound, sight, and hearing – that trigger their emotions and their intuition. He tells of his own experiences of wandering through factories and labs to find out what was really happening in his organization, which led to his successful management career.

In lesson three, Dig Deep, George offers leaders the advice of trusting the people they work with, but also always verifying any information through their first-hand impressions from the marketplace or people working in labs or on the production lines. George provides examples of leaders who got into trouble because they never verified the information they were being given.

In lesson, Get Ready for the Long Haul, there is a brilliant piece of information relating to reinventing your leadership. Pretend you were fired and then think: what would I do if I were my replacement? How many leaders could truly walk into their office with a totally new set of eyes and change how the company operates? George gives examples of leaders who did.

Another aspect I liked about this book is George’s ability to show that business is not just about the bottom line. In fact, the author makes a point about how bottom-line mentality helped create the recent financial crisis. His argument is compelling and, based on the examples he gives, hard to refute.

All about values

Lesson six tells leaders how to cope with being in the spotlight and how it’s possible to be visible and accountable by being true to your values. This will be hard for some executives, as exemplified by the recent financial crisis in which it appears many either didn’t have values or certainly didn’t stick to them. When it comes to dealing with the media in such situations, George points out “The media will treat you right, if you’re being open and honest.”

Lesson seven, Go on Offence, Focus on Winning Now, examines the other half of leading in crisis, which is to go on the offence and focus on winning, not just getting through the crisis. George suggests that true leaders can reshape the market. He says it requires a clear vision of what future markets will look like and a focused strategy to reshape them, after which you need to move aggressively to put your strategy into action

7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis is 127 pages of pure content. Unlike many business books, the information is out front and easily understood. The book is an easy read and entertaining. It’s also one of the books I’ll be returning to time and time again.


Troy Media

Garth Roberts is a Leadership Coach and Trainer