The No. 1 Mistake Leaders Make in Crisis

During a crisis, leaders tend to hyperfocus on managing the threat and neglect long-range thinking. That’s a mistake because vision is critical both for evaluating short-term decisions and for creating a better future.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a major disruption to the world economy. Some believe it will dwarf the effects of the 2008 recession, with fallout rivaling even that of the Great Depression. 

With many businesses shuttered and others struggling to survive, some leaders are thinking only in tactical terms. They’re concerned with week-to-week survival, not long term vision. 

That’s understandable, but it’s a mistake. The ability to survive any crisis begins with a vision for what’s possible. That’s true no matter how great the crisis. As I wrote in The Vision-Driven Leader, “If the vision is compelling enough, people will apply their best thinking and efforts to figure  it out, regardless of the obstacles and opposition.” 

Lesson from the Lost Moon

You may remember the movie Apollo 13, based on the disastrous moon mission of the same name. The Apollo 13 spacecraft was damaged early in the flight, and the mission was aborted. But returning to earth safely was by no means certain. 

Running low on oxygen and battery power, the three-member flight crew huddled together awaiting instructions. Meanwhile, NASA’s ground crew, led by veteran flight director Gene Kranz, scrambled for solutions. Tension mounted as the hours ticked by. 

As the space ship neared the critical moment of re-entry, a senior leader remarked, “This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever seen.” At that moment, Gene Kranz, said, “With all due respect, Sir, I believe this will be our finest hour.”

That’s visionary leadership. It was that vision of a positive outcome that enabled Kranz and his team to achieve. First, they envisioned the destination, a safe landing. “Failure is not an option,” Kranz said. Then they improvised, adapted, and created their way to it. 

To survive this crisis, let alone thrive in the future, you need a clear, inspiring vision for what comes next. Here’s why. 

Vision Produces Positive Change

If ever there was a time we needed positive change, it’s now. The surging economy that we rode into this crisis has been badly damaged. Some industries are closed temporarily, and many businesses will not survive. That’s reality. 

But that’s not the future. The pandemic will eventually come under control. When that happens, we’ll need thriving businesses, jobs, goods, and services—just as people always do. The businesses that thrive in those days will be led by those who look ahead to envision a better reality. 

It would be foolish to ignore the current reality. It’s also unwise to fixate on it. Leaders look for what’s possible. They imagine what could come next. They picture a better tomorrow, then find a way to get there. That’s how we make progress. 

Negative Thinking Won’t Save Your Business

It’s often said that hope is not a strategy, and it’s true. To make any progress, you need a vision, followed by a concrete plan. Wishing won’t get you there.

Neither will pessimism. Doomsday thinking and scarcity mindset are paralyzing. You cannot lead into the future if you’re bound by negative thinking.  

Yes, take the threat seriously. Deal with it, mitigate it, be prepared. But a leader cannot afford to become reactionary. Fear won’t stop a pandemic. And fear won’t save your business. You need a vision for what comes next. 

People Crave Visionary Leadership

When there is uncertainty, people look for leaders. That’s true nations, communities, and families. And it’s true of your business. Everyone wants a way out of this mess, and they’ll follow the person who can identify it. 

Wherever you are leading right now, people are looking to you for direction. No matter what the current reality may be, they innately believe that something better is possible. Now is the time to lead with vision. 

And So It Will Be 

The Apollo 13 capsule did indeed return to earth safely. Decades later, Jim Lovell, the captain of the flight crew, was asked about Gene Kranz’s legendary remark. Lovell said simply, “And it was our finest hour.”

Will 2020 be the worst disaster your business has ever seen? Or will it be your finest hour? It can be the latter if you lead with vision.