What 9/11 Taught Us About Crisis Leadership
Written by: Jon Berghoff
With the COVID-19 global pandemic, change itself is changing.
Unprecedented, overnight disruption is still incomprehensible for many of us.
Not for Chris Fussell.
A seasoned veteran of complex leadership scenarios, Fussell is President of McChrystal Group, and author of NY Times Bestselling Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.
Fussell’s decorated career includes leading alongside General Stanley McChrystal, as they oversaw a complete reinvention of the US Special Forces community, following 9/11.
Few people have the credentials to teach us about collaboration, while facing the highest stakes imaginable.
Fussell sat down recently for a conversation with Christopher Lochhead, host of the Follow Your Different podcast.
This article explores and expands on the conversation.
A Crisis of Isolation Presents a Deeper Problem Than We Realize
Fussell warns us of an existential threat from this crisis.
Social cohesion, the fabric of our society, is being ripped to shreds by the widespread experience of isolation.
Think about it.
Our institutions — the workplace, schools, religious gatherings, community groups — pulled us together across networks and boundaries.
“If the fabric starts to be unwoven, it’s very hard to put back together.”
A disruption in this social fabric, for any length of time, creates a threat that our limited minds might not yet fully grasp.
For leaders who want to serve right now, they need to consider their responsibility to:
- Quickly find ways to build social cohesion, counter balancing the disintegration of connectedness taking place.
- Consider every stakeholder they can do this for. Inside their organizations. With their customers. Across their industry. In their communities.
- Pay attention to, and prepare themselves to be in service of the downstream consequence of this social unraveling… a mental health crisis of unimaginable proportions.
Networks Need to Replace Pyramids
At XCHANGE, our obsession and study of social structures, and specifically conversational structures, have led to some powerful and surprising discoveries.
One discovery is this: culture follows structure.
February 2018 in Munich, Germany, I was introduced to this idea by legendary systems scientist, Craig Larman. We were both in town, leading transformation projects at the BMW Autonomous Driving Division.
That’s right. Culture isn’t something that emerges by decreed, mandate, or a convincing presentation from the CEO.
Textbooks will tell us that culture is some mixture of values and behaviors.
Experience gives us another way of seeing it.
If you really want to understand any culture, you only need to look at two structures.
Who is talking to who?
What are they talking about?
As Fussell points out, this crisis of isolation just made our industrial age organization structures (think of a pyramid) irrelevant, maybe even obsolete.
Or put differently – a long overdue realization has been accelerated.
“The old structure doesn’t matter much anymore because now that everybody is distributed into the small teams, network methodology and behavior is starting to take over.”
Now is the time for leaders to find new ways of communicating aggressively, with as many people as they can inside the organization. This could mean breaking down and through old structures of communicating.
It’s time to leverage digital platforms that allow us to distribute any relevant information, learning, or challenges, as fast and far as possible.
Today, a client asked us to film a presentation for their sales leaders.
I asked when the presentation would be published.
The answer I received is unfathomable- in about 45 days, during a day long pre-recorded, neatly packaged, virtual sales training event.
I can’t stop wondering how many in their sales force will go under by then.
This isn’t the climate to wait for the quarterly or monthly meeting. This isn’t the time for a nicely edited powerpoint and polished presentation.
That won’t work anymore.
“In a complex environment, we must change from ‘knowledge is power’ to ‘sharing is power’.”
Our environment is shifting too quickly for any other way.
The faster we share information, learnings, resources, the higher the likelihood we survive.
What meeting structures and cadence allows information to flow fast enough?
What silos, beurocratic red tape, and unnecessary processes need to be broken down and eliminated right now?
How do we remove any blocks from innovation, solutions and resources being shared across previously held boundaries?
Who can we include and invite to share what’s working, what they are learning, and what they need help with?
Inauthenticity Is Now Intolerable
“Real leadership is walking out there and having an honest discussion with your people.”
In a crisis, the need to understand psychology — in the self and others — raises exponentially.
Fear, doubt, uncertainty, anxiety are at an all time high. Not just for those being lead. For everyone.
These emotions, left unregulated, will cause a leader’s ego to put up walls, give the illusion of having the answers, and protect from revealing their own vulnerabilities.
That’s a problem.
Our radar, even if unconscious, knows when the message, or the messenger, doesn’t seem to match the moment.
This only exacerbates our fears. Now we feel like our leaders aren’t willing, or able, to really understand what we are facing.
Fussell reminds us that the world hasn’t seen this kind of crisis in our lifetime.
“Everybody knows we are collectively, as a as a species, trying to figure out how we’re going to manage. There’s pockets of success and failure all over the place. You have to lead with honest candor, even just to to recognize the humanity of the moment.”
Acting like you have the answers, or as though you know something that other’s don’t… won’t fly.
It’s a risk. It feels exposed. It’s now the only tolerable approach. In a complex environment like we’re in now, we don’t have another choice.
WRITTEN BY: Jon Berghoff