Five Ways Leaders Invite Avoidable Crisis and Five Ways Leaders Can Help Prevent Them (and Respond Effectively When They Do Occur)

By Grayson James

When leaders foster strong collaborative practices, they can prevent many problems from turning into crises. When they don’t, it’s just a matter of time before a crisis hits. When a crisis does hit, collaborative leadership cultures are more resilient and much more likely to learn and respond effectively.  

Things surprise us when we don’t expect them. Or don’t talk about them, Or don’t deal with them until it’s too late. 

Some crises come with little or no warning, like earthquakes, train derailments, pandemics, and some geo-political events. 

Some other crises give us enough advance warning that we could do something to mitigate their impact on us and our organizations—if we’re paying attention. Hurricanes, climate change, economic meltdowns, and many disruptive technologies are examples.

And some crises are entirely predictable and preventable. Most organizational failures fall into this category. These crises reflect the organization’s leadership culture. They are the accumulation of many smaller organizational problems that either went unnoticed or were left unaddressed by leaders. 

I call these collaborative crises because even if they originated from outside the organization, the culture and practices of the organization allowed them to fester and grow. These collaborative crises tend to arise in leadership cultures that discourage or outright punish good collaborative behaviors, such as:

  • Raising and discussing potentially uncomfortable topics
  • Sharing dissenting or unpopular views
  • Taking personal responsibility for mistakes and failures
  • Acknowledging that the leader, or leadership team, doesn’t have all the answers
  • Prioritizing continual learning over being right

The absence of these behaviors are tell-tale signs that the company is vulnerable. That it’s just a matter of time before issues that get swept under the rug grow too large for the rug. 

In cultures where leaders prize loyalty and punish dissent, for instance, people don’t raise issues that may challenge the leader’s judgment or reveal the leader’s human fallibility, even when ignoring these issues will jeopardize the company.  

Where having the answers and feigning certainty are the norm, then openness to learning and adapting to novel circumstances take the back seat—even when this kind of flexible thinking is desperately needed to keep the company healthy.  

Business school case studies are rife with public examples of these cultures, like NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, Enron’s collapse in the early 2000s, and Boeing’s 737 Max airplane crashes in 2018-19 that cost hundreds of human lives. 

In each of these examples, the preventable problems were well-known by many yet ignored by senior leaders. 

And when a crisis does hit, these same types of cultures are also more likely to react with defensiveness or deflection rather than transparency and accountability. 

In these and many other examples, leaders of these companies helped to create and sustain the very cultures and conditions that eventually spawned the crises. 

So what can you as a leader do to help avoid preventable crises and deal effectively when unavoidable crises do strike? 

You can start here:

  1. Encourage dissenting views and information, even when it’s uncomfortable. This means don’t shame, punish or marginalize the people who care enough—and are courageous enough to raise the issues.
  2. Openly acknowledge your mistakes and failures and share what you’re learning from them. Doing this doesn’t weaken your leadership standing, it does the opposite. It lets folks know that you’re big enough to take the hits when things go badly, as well as the praise when they go well. This fosters continual learning and growth and a much more resilient culture.
  3. Devote regular time in your meetings to raise and discuss issues that folks may be concerned about but not yet talking about. Don’t require that people already have solutions before they raise critical problems—solving problems usually goes better when it’s a collaborative effort. A mentor and friend of mine, Bob Dunham, instructed his clients to always place “red and yellow flag” updates and conversations up front in meetings so folks have adequate time to discuss them (and also so that people don’t have to shoulder the burden of these potentially difficult conversations throughout the entire meeting). 
  4. When unexpected crises do hit, get people together right away to learn as much about the situation as possible before simply reacting. And then figure out how to proceed and commit to transparent and timely action together as a unified leadership team. Even if one individual or department may bear the brunt of responsibility for the crisis, the entire leadership team must address it and respond together. 
  5. Take on a daily personal practice that conditions and strengthens your nervous system, so that you as a human being are better able to deal effectively with challenges when they occur. A daily practice may include things like yoga, meditation, prayer, martial arts, breathing practices, tai chi or any other mind-body discipline that cultivates a more spacious and centered presence. Your everyday quality of presence as a leader communicates much more directly and viscerally about what behaviors you value than simply telling people what to do or how to be. 

Sometimes, s**t just happens, even to the best-run companies. But fostering a leadership culture that actively addresses challenges and then tackles crises that do occur with candor and accountability can determine whether your company will become a case study in failure or a case study in corporate resilience and inspired leadership.

Preventing and dealing with crises—no matter what form they may take—are never solo activities —they’re always collaborative endeavors.

About the Author

Grayson JamesGrayson James has been helping executives, boards and senior management teams improve their collaborative business performance for over 30 years. In addition to coaching senior executives and teams, he facilitates organizational change initiatives and provides collaborative leadership education internationally through his consulting firm, Grayson James Consultants, LLC + Full Contact Institute. He designed and leads the highly acclaimed Full Contact Collaboration workshops worldwide, and is the author of Full Contact Performance: The Internal Art of Organizational Collaboration.