WHEN THINGS are going well, it is pretty easy being a business leader. The economy is booming, orders are rolling in and there are no tricky decisions to make about staff or budgets. It is still possible to screw things up, but a rising tide tends to lift all yachts.
It is in a crisis that corporate helmsmen show their mettle. Employees will be uncertain and will look to the leader for direction. Sometimes, as with the covid-19 pandemic, the problem will be something few bosses can reasonably have anticipated. Now they are expected to chart a steady course in days.
In the political arena the obvious examples of successful crisis leadership are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Both were somewhat erratic decision-makers. But they made up for it by being excellent communicators. Their styles diverged, but the public had little difficulty in understanding their core message. Roosevelt made clear that he was willing to try any combination of new ideas in an attempt to end the depression; Churchill was unambiguous about the need for Britain to resist Nazi Germany, whatever the cost.
Corporate leaders should resist the temptation to give Churchillian speeches. But they have something to learn from the calm authority of Roosevelt’s “fireside chats”. As chief executive you have to communicate a message to two...
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