Bill George opened the World Business Forum this morning with an overview of his "7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis" book. His talk was particularly relevant given the business climate; he felt that the true leaders that emerge in a crisis are the ones that "get down onto the playing field".
Bill gave two examples of people who, in his opinion, got down into the trenches and became leaders during the financial crisis: Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson. In both cases Bill sighted the need for both of them to make hard decisions given a very limited set of options. They made decisions that allowed the economy to "pass through the eye of the storm".
However, like Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of the storm requires a significant cleanup. In the United States the aftermath is the jobs crisis. Americans need innovation and creativity to create new jobs through entrepreneurs and venture capital (as opposed to spending money on saving existing jobs).
But don't wait around for government to do this funding. The leaders that will emerge at this point in time are the ones that find ways to clearly and transparently tell the truth and follow up by communicating a long-term strategy and vision to the troops that are slogging it out in the trenches. Why are leaders hesitant to communicate bad news? Because it is akin to admitting failure. Bill commented on this phenomena by saying "It's better to have a bad day than a bad life".
Bill gave an example of a leader who told the truth, took some lumps, and then communicated a vision to employees and customers. David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue, personally apologized to JetBlue customers when an ice storm caused the cancellation of over 1700 flights, resulting in severe customer dissatisfaction. David could have easily "blamed the weather", but instead he issued a personal apology and followed it up with a new strategy: "The JetBlue Customer Bill of Rights". How did the JetBlue executive board appreciate his transparency? They ousted him. But he kept his integrity throughout the JetBlue crisis (and has started a new company in Brazil).
Bill ended his speech by encouraging the attendees to make a difference and help America navigate through the jobs crisis; it could be their defining moment. His strategy is simple: be transparent to your team, admit mistakes, and present the new vision.