Leading an organization can sometimes feel like navigating a ship through mine-infested waters. Disaster is likely to strike at some point, no matter how sure the hand at the helm. Data breaches, customer service debacles, recall fiascos — crises are everywhere, and countless institutions have been sunk by an unseen bombshell. But in many cases, it isn’t the crisis itself that causes an organization to flounder; too often it’s a leader’s response to the crisis that causes the greatest damage.
A disaster is a moment of truth for an organization. It’s a time when competent leaders prove their mettle and when pretenders reveal their impotence. A crisis is almost always an indication that something needs to change within an organization. Sometimes that change is structural. Policies might have to be revised, or mission statements might need to be tweaked. Other times that change comes in the form of new leadership. If the person at the helm is unable to make good decisions during turbulent times, the organization might have to look elsewhere for needed direction. Replacing an ineffective leader is a common — though not always ideal — response to things going awry.
It’s better for leaders to be proactive and take the necessary steps to navigate crises and make solid decisions that will help move their organizations in a new direction. Consider taking the following steps when you face turbulent times:
Step 1: Be honest with yourself.
In order to right the ship, an effective leader must start by confronting hard truths. A leader can’t justifiably be blamed for a force majeure or for some other unforeseeable, unavoidable stroke of bad luck, but oftentimes crises are caused from within and aggravated by the organization itself. Faulty security procedures might be to blame. Poorly trained personnel or an internal conspiracy could be the culprit.
If a crisis is triggered by a structural failure, a good leader will analyze the flaw to determine how it contributed to the crisis. If an airplane crashes because of the captain’s miscalculation, an honest leader would self-evaluate and own the mistake. To err is human; to take responsibility is divine. Being honest helps leaders get the root of problems and capably address them.
Step 2: Act carefully but quickly.
In diagnosing the problem, a capable leader must work with a dedicated team to craft a strategic plan. All options must be brought to the table and weighed, no matter how difficult or undesirable they might seem. Once a decision has been made and a plan has been developed and vetted, it must be put it into action as quickly as possible. Time is usually of the essence in such scenarios, so there can be no dillydallying or feet dragging. When crises demand same-day responses, delays can be perceived as incompetence or even indifference, both of which can exacerbate a crisis. When more time is available to consider possible solutions, take it. However, remember that careful and quick must go hand-in-hand at this juncture.
Step 3: Stay focused.
Be aware that once the action plan is set into motion, there will likely be further challenges and setbacks that surface. Even if a leader’s response to a crisis is otherwise impeccable, some critics and competitors might take this opportunity to kick the organization while it’s down. Previous mistakes might be brought to the forefront, and old controversies might have to be re-litigated. It’s natural for a leader to feel doubt and fear as the problems pile up.
If you start to lose focus on the big picture, it might be necessary to take step back from the situation and reassess it, or even seek outside advice. But it’s important not to despair. If your plan is sound and the organization’s intentions are good, then push through the discomfort and uncertainty. And, above all, remind yourself that smooth seas don’t make good sailors.
While it’s not always possible for an organization to completely recover from a crisis, or emerge wholly unscathed, even when headed by a brilliant leader, it is possible to take lessons from every disaster. Failure today could mean success tomorrow. Hold on to that truth to find peace of mind when the storm is raging.
Karima Mariama-Arthur is the founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport, an international consulting firm located in Washington, D.C. that specializes in professional development. She trains, coaches and consults for individuals and organizations on the dynamics of complex communication and high-performance leadership competence. A version of this piece originally appeared on entrepreneur.com