I remember when the floor fell out from under us during the 2008 recession.
At the time, I was working for a scrappy little company that -- to its detriment -- had not figured out how to transition from startup to established business. For 10 years, Post-It notes took the place of contracts, four-line emails subbed in for formal training, and "burritos for all" lunches somehow counted as kudos and bonuses.
It was little surprise, then, that when the economy began to collapse, leadership from the owners was nowhere to be found. What's more, no strategy was conveyed for handling the inevitable downturn in business. Heck, no one even bothered to acknowledge we were facing a potential crisis -- and our jobs were at stake.
In truth, I don't know how my erstwhile boss spent those many months of financial instability. Perhaps he was out selling feverishly -- selling to save us. Perhaps he was stumbling over drafts of a strategy document that never saw the light of day.
I doubt it, though; all I really know is he was absent when his anxiety-ridden employees needed him most. Which begs the question: What kind of leadership would have inspired and motivated us in the midst of that crisis?
Finding both emotion and reason in leadership.
Recently, I wrote about the critical importance of compassion in leadership. I truly believe in that -- but I also know there's a boundary. There's a point at which an overly-compassionate CEO stops becoming a leader to all and merely becomes a shoulder to cry on. The result is catastrophic--employee trust is lost, decisions are made in the heat of emotion and not with reason, and public perception wavers. Any one of these things can spell the end of an otherwise successful business.
So where is the line between compassion and reason in leadership? The Harvard Business Review has written around this topic for years, and while the answer still seems somewhat elusive, there is growing clarity. In 2017, summarizing a study of CEOs' daily to-dos, HBR noted that in many cases, the "best" CEOs lean toward leadership and not management. That is, they focus on high-level vision-setting and ideation -- not foundational systems management and processes.
Part of this high-level work involves communication -- not to individuals, but to all company stakeholders. This includes employees, investors, and paying customers. Of course, all three comprise well-rounded human beings -- as emotional as they are reasonable -- so a CEO's communication should involve, to some extent, both emotion and reason.
Balancing empathy and good sense
When a crisis hits, then, should CEOs listen to individual concerns about the aftermath? Should they spend energy addressing pervasive angst? Or should they focus their attention instead on next-level thinking about crisis management that will turn their company around?
The best CEOs, I would argue, are those who address their internal constituencies (employees) first, acknowledging the problem and the emotional upheaval it precipitates -- even going so far as to note their own emotional response to the crisis. Then, they articulate strategy.
Case in point: Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson's letter to employees in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This wasn't just a laundry list of must-dos aiming to buoy profits. No; Johnson open-heartedly accepted the crisis for what it is, reaffirming human safety as top priority. He then went on to thank his employees -- the worldwide Starbucks community -- for all they do. Finally, he addressed the steps Starbucks is taking to continue business safely.
Johnson's address highlights something else: A CEO's crisis communiqué should show gratitude for the efforts made by employees who are serving both the public at large and the company's community. And, where appropriate, this gratitude should extend to bigger communities that fold in consumers and the public -- especially when workers in other industries are making sacrifices for the common good.
As you consider crafting your own messaging, be sure to restate the primacy of human safety and wellbeing in all that you do, then articulate your company's next steps, give berth for potential changes in strategy to ensure the best response, and reaffirm your commitment to vision, mission, and ethical practices.
This sense of community is key, as it provides support for the next important message, the one to the public. Again, acknowledgment of shared emotional upheaval is important, but offer the greater community a concrete sense of forward movement -- progress in the face of challenge. Don't over-promise, but make it known you have a concrete way to handle both widening anxiety and financial challenges.
Most of all, be human. Own your own emotional response and that of your employees as you commit to improving conditions in the weeks and months ahead.