Guest Blog: An Airplane Napkin Manifesto

by Aman Singh Das | October 05, 2009

  • My Vault

In March of 2009, I sat down for a cross-country flight and jotted down a few thoughts on effective leadership in crisis—given the economic turmoil the country plunged into only months before, it seemed an unfortunate, but appropriate, issue to ponder. Those airplane napkin notes soon morphed into a Wall Street Journal article, which later expanded into my latest book 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis.

More than a prescriptive business how-to guide, 7 Lessons is the culmination of business concepts I’ve learned (and re-learned) throughout my career at Litton, Honeywell, and Medtronic, as well as the time I’ve spent as a director of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Novartis, Target and a professor at the Harvard Business School (HBS).

I chose to write 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis not only because it was (and is) particularly timely given the recession, but also because I feel it is imperative that we study leadership (both good and bad) as it plays out “under fire.” It’s quite easy to be a measured, good-natured, principled, and strategic leader in smooth sailing, but reputations are made in the depth of crisis. I want to ensure that the next generation of leaders, like those students of mine at HBS, clearly understand that concept and grasp the inherent vulnerability they face as leaders in crisis.

Furthermore, I wanted to set the record of the economic collapse straight. The economic calamity of 2008-09 was not caused by subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, or even excessive greed—the root cause of the problem was failed leadership.

I want young leaders to see examples of distinctive leaders—like Anne Mulcahy at Xerox, Greg Steinhafel at Target, Indra Nooyi at Pepsi and Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway—and learn why leaders like Chuck Prince at Citigroup, Martin Sullivan at AIG, and Richard Fuld at Lehman Brothers failed.

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At the end of the day, leaders are boiled down to what they “do,” and what they “don’t do.” In 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis I’ve pored over case studies and my own first-hand experience to define those “do’s” and “don’ts.” And while I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy, here a few leadership tips to hopefully help you through the next crisis.

  • Don’t point fingers when you are to blame.
  • Don’t try to go it alone – you will fail.
  • Don’t go for the quick fix.
  • Don’t forget the media – they hang on every word.
  • Don’t shy away from opportunity – come out swinging.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your leadership style.
  • Don’t ever, ever waste a good crisis - it is your opportunity to change your company for the better
  • Do get behind the podium and inspire your company back to profitability.
  • Do get down in the weeds with your managers and work the problem.
  • Do focus on long-term viability rather than short-term profits.
  • Do be forthright in acknowledging fault.
  • Do encourage a culture of candidness. Do call on trusted mentors when you need a fresh perspective.
  • Do keep a close eye on the balance sheet (in crisis, cash is king).
  • Simply, lead with every intention of having an aggressively positive impact on your company, employees, and customers. Crisis or not.

Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, True North and Authentic Leadership. The former chair and CEO of Medtronic, he currently serves on the boards of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs and previously, Novartis and Target. Bill will be an introductory speaker at the October 6th - 7th World Business Forum at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

Read more at BillGeorge.org, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.

Filed Under: CSR

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