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Crisis Management: Mastery and Proficiency

A few weeks ago, I participated in a Ketchum leadership workshop where we probed dependent, independent and interdependent leadership styles.  Respectively, this can be defined most simply as “you do it,” “I’ll do it,” and “we’ll do it.”   Neat.  

During the session, I raised the following:  “It’s tough to lead others if you’re not recognized as having mastered something.  And mastery can only come when you’ve pushed through the complacency of just being proficient.”

Okay, so this wasn’t an entirely original thought.  Just a few hours before the session I happened to have read this Forbes’ article by Amity Shales, which contains this nugget:

(My father, Jared Shlaes…) gave the best career advice I’ve ever heard: There will come a moment when you are bored with an area of study and will want to try something new. But that boredom is the signal you’ve achieved mastery. You’ll be quitting at the moment when it’s most costly to do so. Only a mastered trade can be properly monetized.

How do these thoughts on mastery and proficiency apply to crisis management?  It gets back to a statement I’ve often made.  “It takes about 5-7 years to learn all of the rules of crisis management and the rest of your career to challenge every single one of those rules.”  You have to constantly challenge assumptions and look beyond the obvious to be a master of your craft.  (That’s why I and others strongly favor experienced crisis managers and teams over plans.)  

I’ve recently stumbled on other viewpoints complementary to this one:

1)  Within the Ketchum session, Rob Flaherty provided this unattributed quote:  Great ideas often endure a lonely childhood and awkward adolescence.  (I couldn’t find the quote’s source on Google.)   I love this quote for crisis managers.  Status quo thinking or template approaches do not always work for crisis preparedness, or crisis response.  Sometimes, a leader needs to champion a new approach to make an impact. 

2)  This phenomenal post from Chad Storlie on the Harvard Business Review blog, Manage Uncertainty with Commander’s Intent.   Key callout:

Commander’s Intent describes how the Commander (read: CEO) envisions the battlefield at the conclusion of the mission.  It shows what success looks like.  Commander’s Intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in enemy situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed.  The role of Commander’s Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changed battlefield environment.  Commander’s Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like.  Commander’s Intent is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments.

Yoda, Jedi Master

Storlie goes on to explain how Commander’s Intent was instrumental in the success of the D-day allied invasion of France during WWII.  The mission was a success, despite many failures in the years-long planning.

Of course, in my opinion, this concept also nicely mirrors the point on mastery versus proficiency.  A proficient crisis manager is going to rely on the plan and follow the rules.  A crisis management master will embrace Commander’s Intent and know when it’s time to break the rules. 

3)  An interview of Henry Mintzberg appeared in a recent edition of Impact, the monthly newsletter from the Public Affairs Council.  The interview focused on some of the key concepts in Mintzberg’s new book, Management?  It’s Not What You Think and it included this gem:

Management is not a science; it’s a craft.  Even if you sit at the foot of a chess master, you don’t learn by being told by the master how he did it and the steps you must follow to do it that way.  You have to do it yourself.  Well, management is like that.

Guess what, Henry?  So is crisis management. 

I’d love your thoughts on these thoughts  and I welcome your questions and comments in the space below.

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