leadership in a crisis - he USA's purpose is set out in the Declaration of Independence

What to say when you don’t know what to say – leadership in a crisis

Leadership in a crisis

When friends from other countries ask, “What is happening to the USA?”, I don’t know what to tell them.

What’s the right thing to say? Even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was rendered speechless for 21 seconds when faced with similar questions, reports Time magazine.

“America is burning. Why?” they ask.

Because there’s a huge gap between the United States’ purpose – to be a place where all are “created equal” – and the reality that people of color experience every day.

Because racism, systemic brutality, and murder are wrong, wrong, and wrong.

America’s racial crisis piles on top of the coronavirus crisis.

Most leadership coaches have spoken out on coronavirus but fallen silent on these protests. That ain’t right.

Leaders deserve coaches who help them rise to the moment — and the moment is now.

Leadership in a Crisis – Where do you stand?

Employees, customers and communities have a right to know.

Increasingly, CEOs and companies must speak out. That raises the question: what should business leaders say right now?

Speak out.

Don’t hide or go silent. As I write this, businesses’ stance is shifting from a deafening silence about George Floyd to noteworthy words and actions from a handful of leaders.

Brave leaders like Tim Cook at Apple, Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Brian Cornell at Target, Kenneth Frazier at Merck, and others are speaking up. Citibank CFO Mark Mason wrote this insightful and moving blog.

More business leaders need to follow suit.

In a crisis, your job as a leader is to spread calm, not to pour fuel on a fire. In a pivotal moment, stakeholders will long remember what you said or didn’t say.

But remember, talk is not enough. Follow up your words with meaningful actions.

Use a clear moral compass.

Murder is wrong – even worse when it stems from abuse of police authority.

Protesting what’s wrong is right. That’s what freedom of speech is all about.

But don’t mix up protesters and looters; they’re not the same.

Lead with empathy and humanity.

Voice your human feelings. You may feel sad and disappointed. Grieving. Heartbroken. Frustrated. Angry.

How do others feel? Let them speak for themselves.

Never, ever pretend to understand the depths of any other person’s experience or their feelings about it. The truth is, we humans can’t even imagine it.

Instead, give people a platform to voice their feelings. Listen first, and join in the conversation with ways to help.

For example, Chairman Tim Ryan at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP said it’s essential for employees to speak specifically about the deaths of George Floyd and others. Goldman Sachs is encouraging similar employee discussions.

Leadership in a crisis – Keep your facts straight.

Check and double-check the facts and your sources before you share information. Admit there’s a lot you don’t know.

Avoid speculating or making up stuff. Have the guts to say, “I don’t know.”

Right now, it’s hard to know what’s true. Many people feel like they’re walking on eggshells. Whatever you say, someone will find fault with it.

Rise to the moment. Do the right thing. Find a shared purpose. Clear a way forward so others can choose to follow you.

So what do I say to friends who ask about America?

“We are one nation with many different races and tribes – and we are still struggling to accept and fulfill our nation’s purpose:

‘that all … are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

To realize our purpose, we need leaders from every community to listen, speak out and work together. Use your power to heal and unite our communities. Leaders, we need you now.