characteristics leaders excel

5 Characteristics of Leaders Who Excel Under Fire

In April of 2010, the world watched in horror as millions of barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf. But, it wasn’t just the catastrophe and the potential environmental destruction that had us glued to the news networks. It was BP’s handling of the crisis. While their crude flowed, CEO Tony Hayward made blunder after blunder. Three weeks after the explosion, Hayward called the spill “relatively tiny” in comparison with the size of the ocean – 6 weeks later he said he’d like his life back, and 6 weeks after that, a shell-shocked Board put him out of his misery.

Politics aside, I’m willing to bet Rudy Giuliani was never briefed on how he might handle the possibility of a terrorist attack on New York City. On that tragic day in September, Mayor Giuliani had little time to react to the horror. In those hours of chaos, uncertainty, and despondency, Giuliani established himself as a fearless leader by calming, consoling and urging the public to return to their normal lives; this was how Americans could stand up to the terrorists, this was how to deny the murderers their goal.

A business crisis should be a cakewalk for the organization’s leader. But it is not.

There’s no question in my mind that the sudden, unexpected and potentially catastrophic event that threatens a business is a CEO’s greatest challenge. Ever since the Tylenol tampering recall of 30 years ago, the performances of companies in crisis have come under public scrutiny. Compared to Giuliani’s predicament, a business crisis should be a cakewalk for the organization’s leader. But it is not.

Those who excel under fire do so because:

1. They have the right values and beliefs.

Great leaders live by a set of principles that guide them when the need arises.

2. They are inherently courageous.

There is not an absence of fear, but the management of fear. Anyone who has overcome intense fright will tell you that there isn’t a better rush.

Great leaders live by a set of principles that guide them when the need arises.

3. They are prepared.

Their organizations are disciplined to assess threats and map out ways to mitigate, to deal with the potentiality when it occurs. The CEO has to believe this day will come, and when it does, the company will be prepared to cope from the moment the crisis occurs to the point that recovery procedures begin.

4. They know how to communicate.

Getting the right ideas into the heads of others is paramount. In the case of a recall or an environmental disaster, the first concern is public safety, not the financial interest of the shareholders.

5. They live and breathe the company culture.

If the culture is right, the decision-making is so much easier.

At the outset of the Tylenol crisis, J&J CEO James Burke was guided by the company’s “customer-first” credo written by Robert Johnson in 1943. How Burke and J&J dealt with the crisis has set the standard for all to follow — to be prepared for that inevitable day when disaster WILL strike. Prudent leaders prepare for calamity. And yet, despite pervasive recall awareness, we have CEOs of companies that have the capacity to maim the domain of life, with their heads in the sand.

If the culture is right, the decision-making is so much easier.

Not many years after the Tylenol fiasco, a massive batch of sour coffee that made some people nauseous became my ultimate test of leadership. Without hesitation, I sacrificed the company’s annual profit target by immediately issuing a national recall. Like James Burke, my guiding light through the high-anxiety was the company’s core value of “doing the right thing” for the consumer. In the end, we got through the sour coffee crisis successfully. As for how I handled myself as CEO, my feelings are the same as they were all those years ago. I loved every minute of it. Now, why would I say that? Quite simply, that crisis gave me the opportunity to be the leader my employees expected and the leader I’d always dreamed of becoming.


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John Bell

John Bell is the author of Do Less Better. The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. A retired consumer packaged goods CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world's most respected blue-chip organizations, his periodic musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in various journals including Fortune and Forbes. John has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. He can be reached at his blog

  • Irene Becker

    Thanks for another excellent article, John. I agree that leaders who excel under fire are those whose courage, integrity, humanity and intelligence are largely intrinsic gifts or areas of personal strength that have been developed. I do believe, however, that the imperative to teach/help all leaders optimize and grow their leadership skills under fire, in the face of change and challenges is a critical component of leadership development that speaks loudly and effectively to a new arena that is punctuated by volatility, change, competion AND the opportunity to build the enhanced ideation, communication, collaboration, risk tolerance, values/ethics that can move molehills and mountains.

  • John Bennett

    Great post! Of course, leaders will face critical challenges for sure, as you say. And their responsibilities include positioning the organization for response as well as leading that response that will for sure include twists and turns never anticipated.

    May I suggest, however, that everyone of us can and should give serious consideration to your list of five characteristics – with regard to our careers AND our personal lives (indeed as these two facets of our lives interrelate). Everyone will have leadership responsibilities in situations, including those that are stressful unexpected.

    As an educator, where the company culture is the school culture, I believe so strongly that each of us must consider these five characteristics. Thanks so much for raising the topic.

  • JohnRichardBell

    I’m with you on this, Irene. Demystifying complexity on a continuous basis is a leadership essential to clarify purpose.

  • JohnRichardBell

    Thanks for weighing in, John. At one time or another, everyone will have to step up and lead in a stressful situation. Characteristics 3 – 5 might not be required, but 1 & 2 are a must.

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