23 Mar 2017 16:26 IST

When things go wrong...

Pic credit: studiostoks/Shutterstock

...it is up to the leader to harness the moment — to accept, awake and adapt

There is a saying, that goes “You can’t unring a bell”. But when the bell does ring — that is, when things go wrong — a leader needs to step up. In fact, many have had their leadership defined by how well or how badly they lead during a crisis. When things go wrong, the team looks for leadership.

A leader’s character is tested and revealed during a crisis. She builds her own muscle dealing with the situation. She also forms the organisation’s path ahead and renews the team’s resolve.

Let’s look at a few examples of things that went wrong recently and how leaders reacted. What can we learn from their behaviour? Let’s look at three aspects — three As.

Accept

The 2017 Oscars went off very well, but it will be most remembered for the last-minute goof up, when presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway called out the wrong Best Picture winner. PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Brian Cullinan had, by mistake, handed Beatty the incorrect cover.

But PWC’s US Chairman, Tim Ryan, was quick to accept responsibility. “He is very upset about this mistake. And it is also my mistake, our mistake and we all feel very bad.” He was nowhere near the stage when the incident happened, and yet he chose to say, “my mistake, our mistake”. No excuses, no trying to pass off the blame on to something or somebody else. PwC would have been hurt by the crisis but it also demonstrated integrity by its leader’s willingness to take responsibility.

Taking responsibility

When things go wrong, are we willing to stand up and take responsibility? We have the example of a fugitive businessman who, leaving his employees, customers, debtors in the lurch, chose to flee the country. He has not missed one opportunity to find ‘someone else to blame’ for all the things that went wrong at his failed organisation. When things go wrong, teams or customers are often angry. That is when acceptance paves the way for people to get past the crisis and focus on solutions and a way forward.

Acceptance takes integrity and courage. It demonstrates a leader’s convictions and gives her the credibility to lead during the crisis. This conviction is built early — what happens when grades are less than exemplary? When a fest busts budget, or when a project submission misses the deadline? — as students today. Are we ready to build this conviction of taking responsibility? It will stand us in good stead when our careers throw bigger and more complex crises at us tomorrow.

Awake

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was recently caught on video berating one of the Uber drivers who took him to task for lowering fares. It capped a string of negative-publicity incidents. But Travis quickly apologised in a letter to his staff.

It was interesting to see what he was willing to wake up to. “To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement,” he began his apology, “My job as your leader is to lead... and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away. It’s clear this video is a reflection of me — and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”

Bad behaviour, but followed with a willingness to wake up to the need for change and acknowledge the need for help. When things go wrong, they are often an alert signal to the leader — on strategy, on their personal leadership, or on team issues. They can sometimes display tone-deaf behaviour and refuse to wake up to the need for change. This usually marks the beginning of the end.

Admitting mistakes

Closer home, we saw online marketplace Snapdeal’s founders accepting that things had gone wrong and waking up to the need of doing things differently. Company’s co-founders Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal, in an email to staff, admitted to taking several wrong decisions over the past two-three years amid a funding frenzy and that it was time to course-correct.

“We started growing the business before the right economic model and market fit was figured out,” Bahl and Bansal wrote in their email. “A large amount of capital with ambition can be a potent mix that drives a company to defocus from its core. We feel that happened to us. We started doing too many things, and all of us starting with myself and Rohit, are to blame for it,” they said. The founders backed their ‘wake-up’ moment with a decision to take a 100 per cent salary cut.

Waking up needs a secure leader, who is confident of herself and not afraid to be seen as less than perfect and has a constant desire to change for the better. Getting that combination right today, sets us up well for the future.

Adapt

Unilever, the shampoo to ice-cream behemoth, was jolted by a hostile $143-billion bid from Kraft. It marked a stunning wake-up call for a company that appeared to be cruising. But instead of thrusting its head in the sand, its leadership decided that this was an alert to review, reflect and change.

“The events of the last week have highlighted the need to capture more quickly the value we see in Unilever,” read the statement, announcing a ‘comprehensive’ review of its business. Paul Polman, its chairman had made great strides in leading Unilever on the back of a sustainability strategy. While clearly a socially responsible path, the debate was often on whether shareholders would feel rewarded by the strategy.

Willingness to recraft

Through the statement, Polman showed he was willing to adapt to what was needed — to unlock value more quickly, while at the same time staying true to his conviction of a sustainable organisation. Leaders recognise that circumstances change, new realities emerge and they need to adapt to survive and thrive.

This does not mean the abandoning of principles, but the willingness to recraft everything but principles. The leader needs humility to listen to other voices, to course-correct and renew the journey.

It is inevitable, even in the best of organisations, for things to go wrong. It is up to the leader to harness the moment — to accept, awake and adapt. Then she finds that both she and the organisation may have fallen, but are ready to rise stronger.

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