9 Virtues Blog

Leading in a Crisis: Be Calm and Have a Plan

by Rob Jenkins


Leadership is never more important than in times of crisis, whether minor on not-so-minor. When things go south, people have a natural tendency to become agitated, even panic. They also begin to question the decision-making of those above them on the org chart and the direction of the organization itself.

None of those reactions is conducive to the kind of efficiency and unity—the “pull together” mentality—needed to get through a crisis, especially a major one.

That’s why it’s vitally important, in the face of a crisis, for leaders to do two things: 1) remain calm and 2) have a viable plan to address the situation.

For a leader, the importance of calmness under fire is impossible to overstate. We can certainly see this illustrated in extreme circumstances, like combat. In the chaos of the battlefield, when many are just a heartbeat or two away from abject panic, the leader who can somehow remain calm is the one who can rally the troops.

The truth is, most people don’t like to panic; they’re looking for any reason not to. Someone in a very visible position who clearly is not panicking offers them an anchor to which they can attach themselves and thereby not be swept away on the currents of fear and anxiety.

We can see the same dynamic at work in sports. Next time your favorite pro or college basketball team is down by ten points, and the coach calls a time-out, try paying attention to what goes on in the huddle. Chances are, you’ll see the coach talking to the players very calmly. Sometimes there will be histrionics, but usually those are reserved for when the team is ahead but players aren’t giving their best effort. When the tide of the game seems to turn against them, that’s when great coaches are able to head off panic by displaying calm.

The ability to remain calm in a crisis may be inborn, to some extent, but mostly it’s a quality developed intentionally through strict discipline and practice, and then forged in the furnace of impending chaos. It requires a great deal of courage, because chances are good that the leader, underneath his or her outwardly calm exterior, is feeling all the same negative emotions as anyone else. Remember how we define “courage” in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: It’s not the absence of fear but rather the willingness and ability to do what needs to be done in spite of that fear.

Facing a crisis with calm also requires a great deal of confidence—in yourself, the people you lead, and the organization. Indeed, that sort of quiet confidence, even more than the unruffled physical appearance, is what resonates with people. When bad things are happening all around them, what they really want to know, more than anything else, is that ultimately it’s all going to be okay. It’s vital for leaders to project that belief, even if they’re not quite sure themselves.

Here’s the bottom line: If you as a leader panic, everyone else is going to panic, too. That’s when things can really fall apart. Therefore it’s absolutely vital for you to remain calm, whatever the cost.

The other key for leaders in a crisis is to have a plan. Simply remaining calm will have an immediate, positive effect on the people around you, but that won’t last unless they come to believe, at some point, that you actually have a strategy, or a set of strategies, for moving the organization beyond the crisis. Otherwise, they’ll quickly come to see your outward calm for what it is—merely a façade, not based on anything substantive. Then panic will really set in.

Initially, at least, your plan doesn’t necessarily have to be fully fleshed-out and approved by all the appropriate committees. That can come later. At the moment of crisis, or shortly thereafter, you just need to have some ideas for addressing the situation, ideas that strike people as sensible, practical, and fair.

Those ideas don’t even necessarily have to be your own. You might not have time to seek approval from six committees, but unless you’re in the middle of a firefight or there’s two minutes left to go in the game, you probably do have time to seek advice and input from trusted mentors, other professionals (perhaps in the form of books and articles), and even those around you.

In fact, one very effective way of dealing with a crisis is to bring everyone affected to the table for a brainstorming session. You have to be careful with this, lest it appear that you’re completely out of ideas. The people you lead probably don’t want to be the ones steering the ship—but they will have no problem helping to man the oars, and perhaps even suggesting a course correction or two.  

So you might want to start a meeting like this by tossing out a few ideas of your own for discussion, then asking for input and suggestions from the other people around the table. Chances are, they will see things that you don’t see, and the combined brain power of the group will be able to make significant progress in charting a course out of the current trouble.

But that will happen ONLY if they believe such a course is possible. That’s where your quiet confidence as a leader comes in. You may not have all the answers—and there’s no shame in acknowledging that—but you do have SOME ideas, at least, and you’re open to other ideas as well. But the most important thing is that you believe in the people around the table, you believe in the organization, and you believe in yourself. You’re convinced that a solution is indeed possible, and that attitude will be evident to the others in the meeting, who will likely follow your lead.

So just to recap, briefly: In a crisis, as a leader, you have to remain calm. If you panic, everyone will panic, and the situation will disintegrate even further. But mere outward calm is not enough. You also have to have a plan to address the crisis, even if that plan is just getting everyone together to come up with a plan.

If you’ll do just those two things—be calm and have a plan—when the you-know-what hits the fan, chances are very good that your organization—and your career—will not only survive but ultimately thrive.  

"A Great Man, Dumbledore"

by Rob Jenkins


A few years ago, anticipating the release of the last Harry Potter movie, I spent a couple months rereading all seven volumes of the popular series. (Mixed in with the usual Proust and Kierkegaard, of course.)

Taking them one after another, rather than waiting a year between installments, gave me a new perspective on the novels and provided some interesting insights -- not the least of which is that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, might just be the greatest academic administrator of all time.

Indeed, in her books, J.K. Rowling covers the entire spectrum of administrative types, giving us not only Dumbledore but also his antithesis: the petty, vindictive, rule-mongering bureaucrat-cum-"professor" Dolores Umbridge. Since I can find no evidence that Rowling ever worked at an American community college, I can only conclude that administrators are much the same the world over.

The truth is, while I've known a few administrators who were Dumbledore-esque, I've also seen my share of Umbridges. Most campus officials, frankly, fall somewhere in between, but I like to think that a heartening number have Dumbledorean potential.

So what is it, exactly, that makes Hogwarts's headmaster such an exemplary leader? And what can two-year college administrators learn from him?

The first and most important lesson has to do with trust. The key to good leadership is to earn people's trust —which generally means trusting them first. That is something that Dumbledore does consistently and conspicuously.

Consider his treatment of Hagrid, Hogwarts' giant gamekeeper, whom Dumbledore hired after he was expelled from the school for something he didn't do. Many in the "wizarding community" seem to regard the admittedly uncouth half-giant as something of an oaf, if not a borderline monster. But Dumbledore never loses faith in Hagrid, ultimately appointing him to the faculty. And it is Hagrid, in turn, who utters the pronouncement that I borrowed for my title.

Even more noteworthy is Dumbledore's trust in Snape, the oily potions master whom nearly everyone else suspects of being in league with the dark wizard, Lord Voldemort. Once again, Dumbledore never wavers. When others confront him with what they consider evidence of Snape's treachery, the headmaster always has the same answer: "I trust Severus Snape."

It's worth noting (spoiler alert) that Dumbledore is right to trust both Hagrid and Snape, and that, in the end, his faith in them is repaid many times over. Like any good academic administrator, he knows his faculty well, knows whom he can trust, and isn't afraid to bestow that trust.

Not only does Dumbledore trust his faculty members, he consistently has their backs —even to the point of putting himself in jeopardy. For example, a student's accidental injury in Hagrid's "Care of Magical Creatures" class leads some parents to call for the gamekeeper's dismissal, especially after the victim shamelessly plays up the minor incident. But Dumbledore will have none of it, even standing up to the state legislature —I mean, the Ministry of Magic —on Hagrid's behalf.

On another occasion, Umbridge, who has managed to acquire the title of High Inquisitor (which I take to be something like a dean), not only dismisses the school's divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, but orders her to leave Hogwarts at once. The poor woman is devastated, having no place else to go. Enter Dumbledore, who countermands Umbridge's edict and allows Trelawney to stay. He knows well that his intervention might cost him his own position —and indeed, he is temporarily removed as headmaster later in the story —but he's willing to take that risk to support a faculty member.

Dumbledore also does the one thing the faculty members value perhaps even more than administrative support: He leaves them alone and allows them to do their jobs. In other words, to use the modern term, he's not a micromanager. In fact, for long passages he disappears from the narrative altogether, while Professors Snape, McGonagall, Sprout, Flitwick, et al., carry on, essentially unsupervised, with the important business of teaching students.

For an administrator, resisting the urge to meddle requires a great deal of confidence, not only in one's colleagues but in one's own judgment. It's also the hallmark of great administrators everywhere, who hire the best people they can, put them in positions to be successful, and then get out of their way. Note that, during those times when Dumbledore is rarely seen in the narrative, the school still manages to function just fine, barring occasional attacks by three-headed dogs, giant snakes, or assorted other horrific monsters.

While he generally leaves the business of education up to the faculty, Dumbledore, like all good administrators, does not shy away from making tough decisions when necessary. It is he, for instance, who decides, over the objections of some faculty members and parents, that the school should remain open even after four students are petrified by a basilisk (which I take to be something like a provost).

Dumbledore also allows Harry to compete in the Triwizard Tournament, despite the fact that he doesn't meet the age requirement and the knowledge that Harry's inclusion will anger the other schools involved in the competition.

It hardly needs to be said that those decisions, like most of Dumbledore's, turn out to be the right ones: The basilisk is destroyed, Harry wins the tournament, and Voldemort's evil plot to regain power is uncovered. We're talking about works of fiction, after all. In real life, not every decision an administrator makes ends up saving the world. Some might even be wrong. But great administrators have the courage to make those risky decisions, nevertheless.

Of course, even Dumbledore is wrong sometimes —and, like all great administrators (and great individuals of any stripe), he isn't afraid to acknowledge it. In The Half-Blood Prince, for instance, he tells Harry, "I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being —forgive me —rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger." Later he apologizes to Harry directly for holding back information in an attempt to protect him.

That is an important lesson for anyone who thinks that being in charge means never having to say you're sorry. Actually, quite the opposite is true. A good administrator must frequently admit to being in the wrong, sometimes even when he or she actually isn't.

Finally, my favorite thing about Dumbledore —and perhaps the rarest of qualities in an administrator —is his eternal good humor and civility. During the confrontation with Umbridge that I mentioned above, while the High Inquisitor is ranting and fuming, Dumbledore remains unflappable, smiling, even.

In fact, I can't think of a single instance in any of the books when he raises his voice in anger. Even as the Death Eaters approach to take his life, he remains civil to the end:

"Good evening, Amycus," said Dumbledore calmly, as though welcoming the man to a tea party. "And you've brought Alecto too. … Charming. …

The woman gave an angry little titter. "Think your little jokes will help you on your deathbed then?" she jeered.

"Jokes? No, no, these are manners," replied Dumbledore.

Now there's a great administrator for you: someone who can stare disaster in the face and meet it with equanimity.

Of course, not everybody can be a Dumbledore, but two-year college administrators can certainly benefit from his example. At the very least, they can learn to resist their more Umbridge-like urges, and thus save a herd of angry Centaurs (which I take to be something like the members of a faculty senate) the trouble of carrying them off into the Forbidden Forest.