The Coronavirus or Covid-19 has unleashed a daunting crisis in lives and business, the worst of it being the unknown-unknowns.  How does this end and when?  What will it all look like when it’s over?  Will it return to ‘normal’ as it was before the pandemics (virus, economic and political)?  It takes some very deliberate leadership to navigate the uncertainty of the unknowns.

Effective military leadership has traditional expertise in just this realm of unknowns because no combat leader goes into a fight knowing what the outcome will be.  But he or she has a process to deal with it, they had world-class training to prepare for it, and as they become more senior, extensive experience in it.  Business executives need to take advantage of this and that is what I am going to briefly outline here.

There are some simple rule sets for a business executive to be mindful of when faced with a crisis, especially this current one.  The first set of them is to borrow from the adage espoused by Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Laureate South African Anglican archbishop: “There’s only one way to eat an elephant; one bite at a time.”  This sage advice encompasses a number of important elements but the three to never lose sight of are Simplicity, Clarity and Focus.

When guided by these, an effective leader will recognize the crisis or problem for what it really is beyond the symptoms.  She or he will break down this big problem into a series of smaller ones and prioritize them.  A successful leader will clearly articulate what the problem is and start the process to solve it in clear, easy-to-digest steps that are both reasonable and attainable.  And the leader will maintain and keep others focused on the most important things doing first things first.  This guidance is also important to the leader to help remain calm even in the midst of the storm when emotions swell, and fear takes hold whether fight, flight, or frozen.  Simplicity, Clarity, Focus.

The process for initiating the call to action in managing a crisis is similarly encapsulated in this rule set of Outcomes, Steps, and Communication, or OSC if you prefer an acronym to help remember it.  And this applies whether in the midst of today’s pandemics or what is to come some day in the future, regardless of what business is affected.  Let’s break it down.

The leader most responsible in any organization must first recognize the problem for what it is versus what it appears to be.  Most executives are quite good at this.  Once that is simply and clearly articulated, the leader must describe the desired Outcome or what he or she wants the end state to look like once through the crisis knowing it can never be the same as it was.

Let’s look at an example.  In the aftermath of the disastrous oil rig explosion Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2009, the British Petroleum corporation, after a series of serious missteps, created the desired outcome: “BP is the most environmentally and ecologically responsible and respected oil producing company in the world.”  It took a while to get out from under the lawyers’ attempts to advise and drive the CEO to “limit exposure” and “minimize the risk.”  Due to his lack of experience in a crisis he was replaced, and the new leader quickly sized up the problem and BP was on its way to go after their goal.  Arguably they have come close to attain it.  Set the outcome(s).

Once the desired outcome is set and unlike a drawn-out legal process, a team of leaders must reverse engineer the set of necessary Steps to get from the here-and-now to that desired outcome.  In this process, words and actions must match and be targeted to deadlines or situational wickets.  This is where things often go off track.  Productive leaders know to build and use a trusted team of leaders to help devise these series of Steps to include the three possible outcomes to be mindful of and watchful for; they are—(1) best case, (2) worst case, and (3) most likely case.  The military calls these Courses of Actions or COAs and they support the leader in gauging when and where deviations must be made as the situation develops and circumstances change.  Military planners call these “branches and sequels” working to anticipate the unforeseen or “what if” changes that inevitably occur.  And the process is ongoing, e.g. never stops.

Example.  In 2003, I was in command of a task force to support a heavy US Army division to roll into Iraq from Turkey to advance to Baghdad.  Due to political realities, the 4th Infantry Division was denied entry to Turkey just as US and Coalition forces were to enter from Kuwait in the south.  The crisis was how to make eleven Iraqi divisions north of Baghdad, some 11,000 soldiers, believe the 4th Infantry Division was really there and coming to fix the Iraqis in place.  We had to create a lethal force as effective as an entire US Army infantry division, usually 25,000 soldiers.  I was tasked to put together a team to devise a new plan in extremely short order.  Using a hand-picked group of leaders, we devised a plan using Special Operations Forces parachuted into and arrayed against the Iraqi army north of Baghdad.  Using the OSC process and saving time and space here, the Steps produced an outcome that resulted in our winning 80,000 to nothing, e.g. we did not lose a single operator on the ground (less than 3,000) and not a single Iraqi soldier of the eleven divisions made it to Baghdad to reinforce the Iraqi leader when he called for them as the city was about to fall.  The process worked, and the result was the best of the war but was not widely reported because Media or the Press were not allowed to intel and embed within the Special Operations Forces from the air.  Reverse engineer the Steps to achieve the outcome measuring the progress throughout.

Nothing is ever to succeed if it isn’t effectively Communicated.  The successful leader knows how critical Communicating is to gain buy-in for an outcome, a plan of action with steps and matching words, measurable progress, adaptation to unforeseen changes, and persevering until a change in culture has occurred.  It is not possible to over-communicate when working through a crisis.  It must be done repetitively and via multiple venues or mediums, and a feedback loop must be created for all leaders to see how it is going.  Insightful leaders also know that effective Communication is most often enabled by active listening and asking good questions.  This leader further recognizes the responsibility for understanding what is communicated rests with the receiver and not the transmitter; hence, the imperative for an active feedback loop to affirm “the troops get it.”  Communicate, communicate, communicate until the culture has changed.

Last example.  When I worked in the White House as an aide to President George H.W. Bush, 1989-1990, I witnessed up close and first hand how he built the plan to address the Iraqi incursion into Kuwait.  He held daily meetings and often multiple meetings a day to ensure all understood his intent, gauge everyone’s buy-in, quiz them of their responsibilities and recommendations, sought feedback of every step taken and then told the world via his Press Availabilities what and how we were doing.  In doing so, he held the multi-national coalition under UN-mandate together and achieved the desired outcome and did not allow mis-communication to pull him off into mission creep, missteps, or sense of true solution to the crisis.  Though he may not have been a Ronald Reagan with his words or mannerisms, he was a master of Communication to achieve the endstate—a free Kuwait from outside influence or force.  

No one knows when or how this current crisis will end.  But the most likely scenario [COA 3] is that life will not return to the norm before.  So, who is looking at the problem and working to find a different endstate for how to conduct business if person-to-person meetings never return?  Are the principal leaders seeing the challenge for what it is—an imperative to derive new opportunities?  Is there a trusted team of varied experts to consider the possibilities?  Any plan must have intellectual capital put against how to prevent a worst case, put up a “North Star” for a best case, and drive hard for a desired most likely case if it cannot be the best case.

Be guided by and work hard for (1) Simplicity, (2) Clarity and (3) Focus to set a desired (a)  Outcome, reverse engineer the (b) Steps to achieve it with a trusted leadership team aided by metrics, and NEVER stop (c) Communicating the outcome vision, the plan and the progress until a change in culture is relentlessly achieved.

As a footnote, consider the decades of US military victories that have evolved this process—it works IF leadership is open to it.  Want more?

By John “Boomer” Stufflebeem CPBC

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