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Sometimes Leaders Must Provoke a Crisis

leadershipI’m reading a book called “The Leadership Wisdom of Solomon,” by Pat Williams, Senior VP of the NBA Orlando Magic.

This sentence really caught my attention: "Sometimes leaders must provoke a crisis to see how others react.”

I have found myself doing that, so naturally I was encouraged to read it. But I must admit that, when I have done it, I have found myself questioning if it was the right thing to do.

When is it right? When is it not?

A constant crisis atmosphere will wear people out (and wear out the effectiveness of that crisis you’re provoking) and eventually chase them away. Effective leaders build durable, impactful relationships with their people, creating a stable foundation for peak performance. But they shouldn’t be afraid to provoke a crisis.

When Winston Churchill become Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940, he delivered a speech including the now-famous line, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” He needed the people to feel the crisis that was Hitler so they would be willing to act. He was of the conviction that Hitler would not honor any type of treaty (gee, you think?) and he would rather go down fighting than surrender meekly.

Fortunately, what leaders in business organizations face is rarely if ever a matter of life and death. It’s usually more along the lines of a challenge to overcome or an opportunity to pursue. So I'll admit, the word crisis is a little strong for most business situations.

But the principle is exactly the same, so let me phrase it a little differently:

When should the leader or manager stir things up or deliberately put people outside their comfort zone? 

I know I’ve done it successfully when several conditions are present:

  • When an important business objective is not getting the attention it should. Perhaps the objective is expansion into a new sector or client type, the product launch you rolled out three months ago, or moving more customers from Secondary status to Key status based on their spend level.
  • When I see complacency setting in… that’s when people are unjustifiably satisfied with how things are going.
  • When I see that there might be a structural reason why the business objective isn’t being met, i.e., something of which I’m directly the cause. Are the incentives wrong—for example, are positive incentives weaker than negative incentives? Is your recognition system not configured to notice the right kind of achievement?
  • When I haven’t stirred things up too much lately. I try to be sensitive to not creating an atmosphere of inconsistency and constant internal change—the world gives us plenty of external change!

Churchill knew when and how to provoke a crisis. We just need to be savvy about when and how to make folks appropriately uncomfortable!

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Topics: leadership