During times of crisis, it is the small details that will make or break your company. Tom Kolditz, director of the Leadership Development Program at Yale's School of Management, knows well what it takes to lead in such situations. A retired brigadier general in the Army, he's had to make serious decisions in a split second.
After active duty, Kolditz led the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point for 12 years. From shaping the way officers lead their troops in battle to coaching Yale students on how to run companies, Kolditz has plenty of leadership tips up his sleeve. During an interview with Inc., he dished out a few lessons he teaches his class on cowardice and leading through danger.
During the Iraq war, Kolditz went to the front lines to study military leadership for his recent book In Extremis Leadership: Leading as if Your Life Depended on It. While interviewing U.S. soldiers after firefights, he came up with the "Principles of Crisis Leadership." See below for how you can apply his findings to the challenges you face as a business leader.
Counteract your employees' emotions
Good leaders can judge the emotion of their people and counteract them. When in danger, you do not need to be motivated or pumped up--your body produces adrenaline throughout your system and you're ready to go. A great leader will be aware of this and realize the group needs to be focused on a task so they do not get swept up by extreme emotions.
"If you focus your group's attention and actions on an outward task, this will stabilize the troops' emotions," Kolditz says. When humans are focused on a task, he adds, they enter a "learning posture" that engages the prefrontal cortex, which is home to logic, instead of the amygdala, where emotional reactions take place.
Show you are also at risk
In times of crisis, if you are not at risk but your employees are, they will not trust you. "When people think the organizational leader has skin in the game, they trust them," Kolditz says. Show your employees how you have a stake in the outcome and that you are working through the problem. It is important to make transparent decisions. "When leaders [have] closed-door meetings, that's bad."
Cut down social barriers
When a crisis strikes, people trust leaders who reduce social distance and reach out to lower-level employees. "This is a time to get close to your employees. Put on a pair of jeans, don't take the town car, and be with your people," Kolditz says. It's a small thing, he points out, but think about when natural disasters occur: Political leaders are out in the affected areas wearing jeans, talking to people who lost their homes.