Leadership in Chaos


(By Buzz Knight) We have never seen a period in our life that has been so severely disrupted. There is no model to study that replicates the complexity of the chaos we are all facing personally and professionally. Where can we find answers or perspective that can better prepare us as leaders?

According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin “history can provide perspective and solace” as we all try to grapple with the impact of Covid-19.

Doris points to two points in history that we’ve weathered in the 20th century: “When the Great Depression hit rock bottom in March of 33, before the government was able to get in to help people and the vital organs of the economy were closing down and the second point was when it was a complete shock to the world when Hitler invaded Western Europe. Had he been able to continue his onslaught, Western civilization as we know it would have been destroyed.”

In a new interview in Time Magazine Doris highlights the leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and she notes his singular focus and consistent voice as part of his traits that carried the country thru the turbulent times.

Doris also notes that as FDR “spoke to the nation it was really a single voice, it was a trusted voice. There were fireside chats that he would prepare for days, and he would explain things sort of like a teacher.”

The President had the incredible knack as well of being “able to make people feel he was talking directly to them.”

Doris tries to give us reassurance to know that if we think we are in the worst of times, this isn’t necessarily the worst.

She says “if you go back to the Civil War, they thought even after Fort Sumter that it would be over in 90 days. They couldn’t possibly have imagined what they’d have to endure. That was worse”

Doris also uses the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln as inspiration to draw from during these turbulent times.

She particularly points out the ways that Lincoln led by example to ask the question “How was it possible to coordinate these inordinately, prideful, quarrelsome, jealous supremely gifted men to support a fundamental shift in the purpose of the war? The best answer could be found in Lincoln’s compassion, self awareness and humility. He never allowed his ambition to consume his kindheartedness.”

As each of us attempt to navigate these difficult times what are the applicable leadership skills that we can draw from history to make us better suited for success and most importantly make our respective teams be best suited for success?

1) Lead with singular focus and a consistent voice.
We are in uncharted territory today and your leadership messaging needs to not change by the hour or the day. Your people haven’t been thru anything like this as well so they need the certainty and focus of your message on a regular basis.

2) Master the ability to speak to your team as if you are speaking to each individual one on one.
FDR mastered this ability with his carefully prepared fireside chats and it further solidified his reputation for being a trusted voice. This is particularly challenging in the new world of go to meeting or zoom as the new norm.

3) Practice compassion, self awareness and humility.
Lincoln at the height of the Civil War never failed to realize the complex nature of the challenges at hand and he realized the importance of empathetic leadership at a time it was most needed. His abilities in these key areas fostered a spirit that was critical during the challenging times.

4) Be a unifying force for the mission
Lincoln brought together diverse groups on to his team and he encouraged the environment of collaborative process with his leadership.

Different viewpoints were allowed and encouraged and he built into the process a sense of hope and optimism that we would ultimately find brighter days ahead.

Leadership during good and bad times requires resilience that keeps the strategy and mission on track. FDR and Lincoln were great examples of Presidents that set a calm and consistent tone based on fact and the core strength of their team.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Leadership in Turbulent Times” is available in hard cover and paperback and is published by Simon and Schuster.

Buzz Knight is the CEO of Buzz Knight Media and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]




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