My passion for history was recently reignited through DVDs offered by The Teaching Company. (I highly recommend courses by professors Guelzo, Childers and Fears.) The courses help me draw insights from some of the world’s greatest challenges and apply them to modern-day crisis management.
You think today’s corporate leaders-in-crisis are up against the wall? Compare them to General Washington’s challenge in early December, 1776, when the prospect of sustained independence for the American states (nee, colonies) was most bleak.
Washington’s dwindling Continental army and militia were badly defeated in New York, chased across New Jersey and were licking their wounds on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Congress recently abandoned Philadelphia for Baltimore, to add distance from advancing British Regiments. Many soldiers were lost to battle or defections (indeed, nearly 3,000 swore allegiance to the king through an amnesty proclamation offered by the British). Remaining soldiers were near the end of the one-year term of enlistment previously imposed by Congress.
Washington was pessimistic of the prospect of rallying his remaining troops. They were cold, exhausted, lacking supplies and depleted of the morale necessary to stage an effective counterblow. The situation would prompt the steely military man to write: “I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things.”
Thank goodness he was accompanied by Thomas Paine, a crisis manager for the ages.
Already famous from penning Common Sense before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Paine joined with Washington and experienced most of the retreat through New Jersey. After crossing the Delaware River and assessing the stark situation, he was inspired to finalize The American Crisis.
Here are three of the pamphet’s highlights, with insights for today’s crisis managers:
1) Paine acknowledged the challenge in the opening sentence: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
- Crisis management leaders are wise to be candid about challenges that loom ahead. Attempts to minimize or sugarcoat threats often have the opposite effect – creating a bigger sense of dread among the listeners. Conversely, a bold depiction of the challenge can help instill trust and resolve into the crisis management team and onward through the organization.
2) Paine admonished those who waivered or remained loyal to Britain, and praised the faithful of America: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
- Let’s face it; a crisis sometimes helps organizations separate the less dependable from the truly faithful standard-bearers. Concentrating efforts with company loyalists can provide greater focus to manage the crisis, especially if those loyalists embody the true values of the organization. (Of course, if they’re loyal to a flawed values system, this will add haste to the impending doom. And maybe that’s a good thing.)
3) Paine provided healthy dose of context and perspective: “’Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country.” Although the soldiers felt they had been thrown into chaos, Paine reminded them that the retreat was orderly and fearless in execution.
- Crises often prompt internal second-guessing of an organization’s positive attributes and deeds. Most organizations have plenty of good stories to tell on how to have avoided the crisis, or handled it better. It’s important to regain perspective on those positives and treat them as the foundation for the crisis response.
General Washington was so thrilled by Paine’s writ that he ordered it read aloud to his troops. (Another key lesson here – the CEO or General doesn’t always have to be the spokesperson. It may be better to choose one with the passion and credibility to make greatest impact.) The American Crisis was a battlefield gift to Washington. Soldiers’ spirits were suddenly lifted; despair gave way to hope and firmness. Another gift followed — a sudden influx of more troops, militia men and supplies. Seizing the sudden shift in momentum, Washington launched a surprise assault at Trenton. That initiative and victory turned the tide of the conflict.
I’d love your thoughts on this, or other lessons from history. Tap your inner Thomas Paine by sharing your thoughts in comments section below.