Leaders Need to be Present During a Crisis

RBLP Staff – Building and Leading Resilient Teams Series

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Who hasn’t heard that phrase? We believe that true leaders should amend the old saw by adding, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And the leader is present, ready to pitch in.”

True leadership emerges not on the days when everything goes smoothly, but when the going gets tough. Natural-born leaders love a crisis. But sometimes they want to hog the spotlight.

That’s not what we’re talking about here. Our leaders are present during a crisis. They take on whatever role is required of them. But they don’t micromanage during a crisis. Here’s why: When the going gets tough, that’s when, as the leader, you have the opportunity to gauge the team’s mettle. But you can’t do that if you’re not present.

We heard from an aircraft mechanic what the levels of being present look like. He recounted a situation where the team had to respond to a recall on a certain aircraft. The turnaround deadline was short; these planes had to get back in the air.

The three crews working on the recall each had a leader. Supervisor No. 1 was out on the floor of the mammoth hanger, handing his workers tools, getting clean rags, and making sure they had water and food. He allowed his team to do the work.

But he was there throughout the night, asking them: How can I help?

Crew supervisor #2 remained in his office as the work proceeded, watching the news on his television. News they might have been watching had they been home with their families instead of pulling an all-nighter. 

But at least super #2 was in the building. Because crew chief #3 simply went home when his day was done, leaving his team to handle the job without him.

Leaders #2 and #3 missed out on a huge opportunity to understand how their direct reports responded under fire. Worse, the message the team got was this: When the going gets tough on my watch, you’re on your own.

There are times when, as a leader, you’ll need to be more hands-on in a crisis. The fire-fighting boss who grabs an ax and heads toward the flames with the team sets the tone for the rest of the group. But in other cases, the leader’s mere presence can make all the difference in the outcome. If you bring a calm, clear head to the situation, you’ll be amazed at how contagious that can be when the pressure’s on.

If you as a leader are modeling composure, you will be telling your team: We got this! Don’t panic. I’m not. I know together we can get this done. The moral and emotional support you bring to the situation may be just what they need to pull together as a team and do their very best work.

Being there for an individual when they face a personal or job-related crisis is another way to support your people when they need it most. Sometimes you may have to put yourself on the line. Think about the baseball manager who intervenes in an argument with his player and the ump. The manager goes nose-to-nose with the man in blue, knowing that he might get tossed from the game. But as a leader, he knows he has to keep that player in the game. As a leader, you will, sooner or later, be in the position of intervening with a higher-level boss on behalf of one of your “players” in a workplace beef. It’s part of the job–an important part–so don’t back away. 

Showing up for your team, and for individuals, when the going gets tough will build your team’s resilience. They will see you on the firing line with them and they will respond. And you will learn important details about your team members every time you show up.