John C. Maxwell: Grace Under Fire

UPDATED: March 7, 2014
PUBLISHED: March 7, 2014

Once, about 14 years ago, I really thought I was about to die.

You don’t forget details from a moment like that. It was during a 21-city tour to promote a new book, and my team and I were aboard a Learjet heading to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Georgia. We were maybe 100 feet from the runway when we hit a wind shear. The plane dropped like a rock, and we scraped sideways into the pavement.

But before I could even process what happened, the plane was in the air again, preparing for a new landing. A few minutes later, safely on the tarmac, I staggered out, kissed the ground and turned to thank our pilot.

“You saved our lives,” I gushed. “What was amazing was how quickly you made that decision.”

“That wasn’t a quick decision,” he replied. “As a pilot, I’ve gone through every scenario of a plane crashing. I decided 20 years ago that if I ever land badly, I’ll point the plane right back in the air. I can get away with an error in the air easier than one on the ground.”

You get that? Twenty years before a potential disaster, this guy knew what he would do.

That’s the lesson I want to share today: how to prepare for a crisis. I’m a positive person, but I understand that it’s a leader’s responsibility to anticipate potential hazards and determine a response. This kind of preplanning will allow you to make better decisions, unify a team and meet challenges with confidence.

As the mayor of New York City in 2001, Rudy Giuliani faced one of the worst crises in our nation’s history. He believes the strength of his character and his routine choices allowed him to lead in a time of fear and tragic loss. “The events of September 11 affected me more deeply than anything I have ever experienced,” Giuliani has explained. “But the idea that I somehow became a different person on that day—that there was a pre-September Rudy and a wholly other post-September 11 Rudy—is not true. I was prepared to handle September 11 precisely because I was the same person who had been doing his best to take on challenges my whole career.”

The exceedingly vast majority of us will never have to navigate through such a catastrophe. But we can still learn a powerful lesson from the former mayor, and ready ourselves to lead with strength and confidence in times of difficulty.

Prepare Yourself Now

Start by establishing a firm sense of self. Know your values, beliefs and nonnegotiable principles. When things go wrong, people who haven’t settled their values do things they would not normally do. They take dangerous shortcuts. Decide now which lines you are unwilling to cross.

Train yourself to lead with courage by doing so on a daily basis. Say what needs to be said. Do what needs to be done. Change what needs to be changed. Decisiveness takes practice. Mastering this now will make future crisis management much easier. When you develop a reputation for being honest and straightforward without sugarcoating or minimizing the facts, your people learn to trust you. Speak with authenticity and integrity, and when crisis strikes, people will listen.

Study is also crucial. Identify leaders who’ve faced disasters of any sort and analyze how they worked through them. If we fill our mental toolbox with ideas, we have greater imagination, something to draw on when we confront our own emergencies.

Embrace Adversity

Managing a crisis isn’t just about self-preparation. Girding your team for tough times is perhaps the most important thing you can do. You may be tempted to shelter members of your group, but they need exposure to challenges. They need practice handling hardship. The more exposure to strife your team receives, the better shape it will be in for the next big challenge.

When you allow your team to experience adversity:

1. You increase resourcefulness. Many leaders make decisions behind closed doors without explaining how they reached them, only to later wonder why their team members make poor decisions. Well, they’ve had no exposure to the process of weighing options and consequences. Let people in. Let them wrestle with problems, offer solutions and act upon their choices.

2. You give people an opportunity to prove themselves. When members of your team have a challenge to work through, it allows them to shine. It pushes them to grow. As they gain experience, they gain confidence in their own leadership abilities.

3. You build unity. Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin welcomes hardships. “If our team doesn’t face enough adversity early on in the season, I create it,” he says. “Nothing builds a team like adversity.” Team members will learn to rely on each other as they find solutions and implement new strategies.

4. You stimulate your people. Productive, gifted, high-achieving people need to be challenged. It energizes them. Day-to-day challenges can bring out the best in them.

Go First

Finally, brace yourself for the spotlight when crisis hits. It’s tempting to isolate yourself, but your people must see you in action. Set clear expectations and establish priorities. Communicate what a “win” looks like given the circumstances.

Your priorities may change quickly, so reevaluate frequently and alter course if necessary. Don’t let yourself become paralyzed by the possibilities. In a crisis, many leaders hesitate because they have incomplete information. Just worry about the information you have available and make the best decision you can. Utilize your key people to help you process information and make timely decisions.

Start preparing yourself and your team now, and when the tough times strike, you’ll lead from the heart with your head on straight.

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.