Grace: Can you have it in a crisis?

Critical takeaways

  • Discussions around crisis usually employ metaphors for conflict but grace is also a powerful concept.
  • The five elements of grace – generosity, respect, action, compassion, and energy – can guide our behavior in a crisis.
  • Approaching a crisis with grace helps us maintain a values-driven, honorable path.

 

Very often, talk about crises and critical moments uses metaphors of war and conflict. ‘We’re going into battle. We need to take a defensive stance. Let’s establish a War Room.’ And in many cases, this is a useful mindset to adopt because you are in a conflict which will decide the future of your organization.

However, I have recently been thinking about whether there might be more room for grace in a crisis. 

What is grace? 

Much of my recent thinking on this topic has been inspired by John Baldoni’s book ‘Grace: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us‘. In his book, Baldoni examines the concepts of grace and the implication that it has on business. His key question is: can organizations operate with grace and still succeed in a hyper-competitive world?

Baldoni talks about ways that grace is personified by corporations and identifies five elements common to organizations that operate with grace.  These, in turn, are an acronym of the word grace. 

  • Generosity
  • Respect
  • Action
  • Compassion
  • Energy 

I’m pleased that each one of these concepts are things that we practice here at KITH in our day-to-day work. But I want to focus here on grace in the context of a crisis and to look at how a graceful approach can improve your response.

Grace in a crisis

First is the concept of generosity. In a crisis, the best thing that an organization can do is be generous with its information. Fill any information vacuum to show respect for those affected, the audience and other stakeholders. In the case of a strategic risk where the public may misunderstand a decision or how a situation arose, addressing their need for information is critical to help develop understanding. Even those who still disagree with your decision should at least appreciate your transparency and generosity with information and this will buy you some extra goodwill.

At its root, the word kith means ‘familiar friends, neighbors, or community that we belong to’. This means that Respect is a foundational belief at KITH: we believe that you have to show respect to others at all times in order to develop this sense of kith. But this is even more important during a crisis where people are hurt, confused or feeling dislocated.  Acting with respect builds the foundation for active listening, empathy, and compassion, all of which are key to success.

In a crisis, we must always focus on action. If we made a mistake, we must apologize and fix it. If we did something that’s misunderstood by the public, we have to take action to help people understand it. If there’s something that we need to correct, we change it. But we are the ones that have to make that change happen and this is a process of constant action and iteration.

 

One of the most interesting stories in the book concerned President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. The Depression was one of America’s darkest periods and a national crisis beyond doubt. Throughout this period, Roosevelt’s mantra was, “Do something. If it works, do it more. If it doesn’t, do something else.” The key point was to be constantly taking action, focussing in on and reinforcing those things that work. For FDR, not only did this avoid paralysis due to fear, but this ‘action, action, action’ approach was a major reason that America was able to recover from the Great Depression.

Having empathy and compassion for others is what allows us to act selflessly and ethically. We must ask, ‘how would we feel if this were done to us?’ and use that to understand the feelings of those affected, their family members, our employees, and stakeholders. Respect, empathy, and compassion are what allow us to respond in an authentic and effective way. These make us human.

Finally, there is the notion of energy because a crisis is not ‘one and done’. Not only might the crisis itself last for an extended period, but we need to demonstrate that the actions that we’re taking are genuine. These are sustained changes for the long term which we are committed to seeing through. Managing a crisis and performing deep, systemic changes in an organization are endurance exercises that require sustained effort and energy, particularly if you are a learning organization engaged in an infinite game.

Grace, not Conflict

These five elements – generosity, respect, action, compassion, and energy – are significant in their own right and will enhance your response to a crisis or critical moment. However, I think that the overall concept of grace has an important role to play too. 

To me, grace suggests calmness, integrity, fairness and simply doing the right thing.  I believe that leading with an overall sense of grace is an underestimated ability. Moreover, when faced with a critical moment or crisis, leading with grace will take you on a more productive, effective path than simply thinking of it as a conflict and a fight to win at all cost battle.  

Instead, by acting with grace, you will be able to retire from the field with honor and your head held high, proud of how you played the game, irrespective of the outcome. This is what we should strive for as crisis managers.