A CEO’S ADVICE FOR LEADERS IN A CRISIS
Before I retired from full-time work, I served as CEO of four different companies for more than 25 years, including SeaWorld Entertainment, Saab Automobiles USA, Herschend Enterprises, and an Amazon.com/Asbury automotive startup called Greenlight.com. All of these enterprises went through extreme seasons of crisis:
- Seaworld’s entire business model was threatened by the movie Blackfish and legislation outlawing the breeding of captive orcas. This led to a cash flow drop of 50%. Seaworld came out the other side better than before.
- Saab’s U.S. operation was losing money and running out of cash. Three years later we had the second-best year in it’s U.S. history.
- The Amazon.com start-up was engulfed in the 2000-2002 dot com implosion but survived with the best outcome possible at the time. However, it still ended in failure.
- Herschend Enterprises not only survived but thrived during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
As a CEO at Herschend Enterprises, we crafted our leadership culture based on 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. This culture took us to the top of our industry segment and showed me how powerful leading with love can be. I took this philosophy and turned it into a book, 7 Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders, to show how leading with love can increase employee engagement, decrease turnover, and increase an organization’s performance.
Leading with love is especially important during times of crisis, such as the pandemic we find ourselves in the midst of right now. I want to share with you how you can apply the love works principles to lead with love in the middle of a crisis.
Seven Love Works Principles
Be patient with those around you while remaining present, authentic, and empathetic.
- Present: Still participate in Zoom, emails, and calls, even though we are tired of it.
- Authentic: Don’t be tempted to be stronger than you are, or show a face that is not authentic. People will see through that in a millisecond. One of my favorite quotes speaks directly to this: “People will forgive you for not being the leader you should be, but they won’t forgive you if you are not the leader you claim to be.”
- Empathetic: Accept the fear, anxiety, loss of control.
Be patient with yourself. Crisis decisions can lead to second-guessing oneself. As we move through this time it’s important to name what you are feeling. We are all grieving throughout this time, even if we don’t realize it. Never in the history of our lives have we felt more out of control and we are grieving this loss of control. Work hard to find personal time moving forward. Remember, an exhausted leader is not a strong leader.
Patience should not extend to:
- Cutting expenses and preserving cash. Cash is king and you need to preserve yours. This means slashing capital expenditures and anything non-essential. This means delaying payment to suppliers and asking them to share the pain. This doesn’t mean avoiding paying rent. Your landlord has no other options. If you find yourself in a position where you need to layoff employees, make sure they are set up for unemployment and create a bridge to those payments. Love means taking care of your own.
- Pivoting your business to respond. Not everyone will be coming along for the ride as you pivot and that is to be expected and can be dealt with. It’s important that as you plan how to move forward you are balancing today AND tomorrow. It’s possible to seem tone-deaf either way so it’s important to be authentic in your reasons and planning. While you move forward, remember to lead for today while thinking about tomorrow.
Now more than ever, the world needs more kindness. Take a look around you and encourage the people in your circle five times more than usual. Encourage your managers and company leaders to do the same. Our brains are wired to need encouragement when the going gets tough, not threats or fear. If you have a moment, take the time to write short notes to those you have noticed doing good works or going above and beyond. There is nothing so encouraging as a hand-written note thanking someone for an action they thought was invisible. Above all, LEAD your people as you encourage them. Your employees don’t need you to be a cheerleading motivator right now. They need you to lead.
Be Trusting (and Trustworthy)
A leader must delegate more to move quickly. Trusting in those around you to do what is needed and what is right empowers them to do the best job they can. However, leading remotely puts a special focus on having clear responsibility for decisions. If you are delegating, make sure those you delegate to KNOW you trust them to make those decisions and then don’t break that trust. Remember the popular leadership acronym RACI: responsible, accountable, consulted, informed. Make sure people know where they fall on the RACI matrix and that you trust them to hold that position. Follow-up is a key part of this process as we continue to operate remotely. It ensures people know what’s going on and that things are happening as they should.
Now is a time for brutal honesty. In order to combat fear, in order to combat rumor, in order to combat speculation, leaders must embrace brutal honesty to put their people at ease. Brutal honesty will help your people trust you. By embracing brutal honesty, people will know that if there is something they need to hear, you will tell them. Do not let fear stop you from embracing brutal honesty, from embracing what you do best.
As you continue to be truthful with your people, it’s important to give them the context they need to understand the truth. There have been many, many tragic deaths from COVID-19 but the death toll is still lower than the common flu. The economic impact of the shutdown has been severe and felt at all levels, but we should bounce back quickly. Your job moving forward is not to give certainty through your honesty, but to give clarity.
This may be the most stressful moment in our lifetime. 9/11 was terrifying and changed our world but did not stop life as we know it. This has stopped our life as we know it and put the world on hold for months. This has led to feelings of being unsafe or insecure everywhere we go and with everyone we see. It’s unprecedented in its reach.
It’s vitally important during a crisis like this to forgive others and remember they are all dealing with more than can be seen. It’s vitally important to forgive our own failures and any sense of shame or guilt that is being felt when you know you are trying your very best. Act as if you are forgiven because you are!
Now is the time for unselfish leaders. Now is the time for us to share the pain of this situation with those we lead, including the financial pain. As leaders who are dedicated to leading with love, we should take the cuts first and lead by example. If we’re unsure, we should be asking for advice and having the humility to take it. God has blessed us with so much and it’s our duty to be unselfish with our gifts and blessings.
This is the toughest leadership experience of our lives. But, we will prevail. We MUST love others in this crisis and show that we are the spark of hope to others. Be there for your family and congregation during this time as they will be more open to faith and family during a crisis. Be dedicated to showing the goodness of God through your words and actions during this time.
We Learn More From Failure than Success
Throughout my career, I have had my fair share of success and failures. As is the nature of a career built on taking risks and trying to constantly better the companies I work for and with, I have learned more from my failures than successes. One of the biggest things I have learned is that leading with love is the only way to lead, especially during a time of crisis.