March 31, 2020

Wartime Leadership

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The concept of being a wartime leader was not invented last week by the president. People talk about Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and many others as remarkable wartime leaders. There’s debate over whether it’s a good phrase or not, but academics and consultants use it to distinguish leadership during crisis. You could think of it as “crisis time leadership” but the concept is the same.

On the business front, as recently as 2011, HBR did a thought-provoking article on Ben Horowitz, one of the two name partners of Andreessen Horowitz, the influential VC of Silicon Valley. It was about being a peacetime versus a wartime leader.

A peacetime leader guides a company when things are good and settled Arnold Glasow said, “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” That’s a peacetime leader perspective—how do I lead during ‘up-and-to-the-right’ growth, when everyone is smiling and all markers are healthy?

But what if I step into a leadership position when it’s already in crisis? Or what if I’m in leadership and crisis is thrust upon me that no amount of “anticipation” could have foreseen?

That’s wartime leadership.

A wartime leader guides a struggling company hanging on for its relevance or existence. When the skies are blue and the sun is shining, a peacetime – run the business leader is perfect.

 However, when a company needs a turnaround, fast recovery and constant pivoting – you better have a wartime leader.

Our current COVID–19 global health pandemic and economic earthquake calls for more wartime leadership. My friends at Praxis in their article, “Leading Beyond the Blizzard” write that we’re in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime change and “leaders must set aside confidence in their current playbook as quickly as possible.”

It’s not that wartime leaders are better than peacetime leaders (or vice versa), and the same person can be both. You just have to change your approach for leading in a season of turbulence. With that in mind, here are a few tips on leading in wartime in random order:

  1. Be decisive. You will likely need to be more directive. Unless you have a very mature collaborative culture and a highly talented/experienced senior leadership team, more direct decision making is usually called for.  As a guy I know locally says, “You can be right or wrong. But don’t be indecisive.”
  2. Tighten your advisor circle. Advice will come from all angles; pick wisely who you’ll listen to. You’ll need some inspiration—“I believe in you!”—and some instruction—“Try it this way.” You can also lean into experts, but again, you can’t read every article or listen to every podcast so choose wisely.
  3. Organize for action and execution. Streamline. The pace of decision making is accelerating.  Everyone you communicate with is balancing a lot in life and emotions are high, so people don’t have the bandwidth to navigate lots of instruction. Action steps and execution to be very clear and simple. Incoming chaos needs to be funneled to the right place. Run the business in sprints (daily, 7 day, 14 day).
  4. Create some battle cry language people can rally around. Colin Powell said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.” Craft a few aspirational targets people can unite around and speak them over and over again. Not loud, windy one-liners but communication rocks in the midst of uncertainty.  Make sure fear’s not the only emotion running rampant.
  5. Practice quick bursts of communication with your stakeholders. Squeeze in shorter reporting and status check-ups. Give them more information than the masses get. Repeatedly ask how you can help them and clear the path for them.
  6. Keep an eye on the emotional and mental ‘oil level’ of your team. Think about a sporting event. When someone runs hard, they need to sit a play out and fuel back up. Your people are running hard, and even the super-achievers will eventually need an emotional and mental refuel. Pour sustained hope and optimism into the soul of your company.
  7. Pivot and focus. The news of Dyson producing ventilators was about equipping the fight against COVID-19 and not about a mad dash for profits, but in it you see the power of innovation. Wartime leaders have to make quick decisions in this vein repeatedly. Will you pause or pivot? Do you dig deeper in debt and double down on a path or alter direction and speed? Do you make it, buy it or borrow it (lease it), etc.?
  8. Get precise with your cash position and cash options. Draft your plan to cut fat, then meat, and finally bone. Know who and what make up these categories. Doublecheck all your cash options of LOC, bridge loans and new investors/donors. Forecast your cash flow. Then be a little less optimistic and do it again.
  9. Disproportionately sacrifice. Many business owners have enjoyed disproportionate gains and financial windfalls from their companies these last few years. Consider this as a correction year to be balanced with the past eight years of incredible growth and profitability. Be willing to go without pay for a few months before you start laying people off. As Max Depree said, “Leaders don’t inflict pain, they share pain.”
  10. Don’t think recovery without any risks. Often you must dial up the risk to have a chance to survive or possibly win. One common denominator of most leading in wartime is they are willing to take big swings. You don’t have to bet the whole farm but you must be willing to take a chance whether it be a people, offering or customer pivot.  

During another time of war, the American Revolution, Abigail Adams, a brilliant thinker and one of only two women to be married to a president and give birth to one, wrote this in a letter to her son, “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”

Wartime leadership is hard. COVID-19 leadership is hard. But there are great characters to be formed, and, more importantly, there are great needs to be met—needs of individuals around you and needs of individuals around the world that your leadership will touch.

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