Crisis, What Crisis?

As a child of the 70s, one of my favorite groups was Supertramp and the above title was the name of my favorite album. The title of this album to me is quite profound. Just what is a crisis? It all depends on the perspective of the person experiencing the situation. One of my favorite CEO sayings was “Your failure to plan is not my emergency” (run a regional MLS and you will truly understand that one!). One person’s crisis is another’s mild annoyance. However, what seems to be clear from the academic literature is that a crisis must occur for the act of leadership to emerge.

Jay Conger has written much about charismatic leadership, what the extant research reveals is that charisma or the perception of charisma as a leadership characteristic cannot exist without some form of crisis. So how do you as a CEO remain charismatic without a crisis? Jerry Matthews, renowned association consultant, once shared with me the meaning of a “Firedog” a noun I had not heard of previously. A firedog is an exec that creates a fire “an emergency/crisis” so that he can run in and put the fire out. Jerry was describing what the academic literature bears out- charismatic leadership happens only in crisis. These execs are in no manner malicious and I believe are not consciously aware of their actions but innately they have learned that a crisis, followed by good leadership, equals charisma. Charismatic leadership often is followed by job security and pay increases until such time as elected leadership realizes the crises are being constructed by the exec.

There was a fascinating study done wherein even mild exercise, which raised internal temperature and heart rate, was enough of a crisis simulation for research subjects to assign higher levels of charisma to a leader than those control subjects who did not exercise before watching a video of a leader. Perhaps this is why Wal*Mart starts its employee shift with 15 minutes of pep talk and you guessed it, calisthenics.  The point is good leadership does not entail creating a crisis that doesn’t exist. So just how does a CEO maintain charisma in a non-crisis mode? Can it simply be physiological? Start each board meeting with mild exercise? Small electric shocks to non-participating directors (I am kidding here!)? I am currently authoring a book titled “Maintaining CEO Charisma in a Non-Crisis Mode” where I hope to bring much of the existing research together to provide realistic, applicable behaviors and actions that allow association execs to maintain or create the charisma that is assigned to great leaders without turning into firedogs or fading from favor once the crisis is over.  Until the book is published here are six things you can do to keep the charisma going:

1) Ensure and encourage breaks during lengthy board meetings- encourage getting up and walking around by your directors.

2) Offer caffeinated beverages (it raises the heart rate and increases concentration) and carb heavy snacks (Blood glucose level increases during a crisis)

3) No cold rooms- this is why people tend to zone out in the frigid temps of hotel conference rooms- their heart rate is slowed. While I am not suggesting making your elected leadership uncomfortable, heat stress (raising of the internal body temperature) does imitate crisis; rather than have them sweating it out ensure you are not decreasing your charisma with a frigid room.

4) Have them visualize crisis with contingency planning. Take them through the exercise of worst case scenarios when evaluating their strategic and business plans. This is just smart business but it is also good leadership and may increase your charisma factor with your board.

5) Mood lighting in the board room? Actually dilated pupils (to let in more light) is another reaction to a crisis. Ultra bright board rooms may cast you in a non- charismatic light.

6) Perhaps just as important as contingency planning is getting your board’s adrenaline going in a positive way-present ideas that are exciting- paint the picture of an exciting and stimulating future.

Finally, you may just want to consider starting board meetings with some mild exercise which could include laughing- maybe showing a funny video at the start of each meeting- remember you are running a volunteer organization not a for profit business- it is supposed to be fun!

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