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9/11’s Lessons on Crisis Leadership

By Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell, writing in the March 24, 2020 edition of The New York Times:

On Sept. 11, 2001, the job of every leader in the U.S. Special Operations community changed. In the ensuing years of fighting a highly complex, networked enemy, we redesigned how our organization communicated, shared information, made decisions and, most critically, maintained a cohesive culture while operating in almost every corner of the globe.

We’re seeing a similar challenge today — except this time, it’s facing the leadership of practically every organization in the world, from governments to Fortune 500 companies to the smallest nonprofit. They are now managing their teams through a crisis with no clear end in sight.

Today’s leaders didn’t ask for this new role. But if history shows us one thing, it is that our greatest leaders emerge from the darkest moments.

Leaders must be visible with their plans, honest with their words and adaptable with their actions — all while maintaining compassion for the situation and the impact it is having on their team. As part of our work at the McChrystal Group, we are in constant contact with scores of leaders around the country. For the past week, they have been fielding a constant stream of queries from customers and employees, and going through a series of increasingly drastic changes to how they will run their business.

Understandably, these leaders are already weary from a succession of crisis response meetings and market assessments designed to get their team through this change. While tiring, these are all necessary efforts. But the leaders we’ve spoken with also recognize that these are simply the very first steps of a marathon. They know that the real challenge lies ahead.

In any crisis, there is a natural temptation to simply wait it out. Today’s leaders cannot give in to this instinct. We’re facing a perfect storm of economic downturn, social isolation and a fast-spreading pandemic. The answer to this problem will not suddenly reveal itself; leaders must create solutions. Any leaders who are not already on a war footing and preparing to fundamentally change their organizations for the foreseeable future must start moving today.

Here’s what that means.

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