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Crisis Leadership: Lessons From The Ultimate Team Sport

In the stern of every 4- and 8-oared rowing shell sits a person called the coxswain.  This person is the brains behind the brawn; the on-water coach; the decision-maker; the leader. This person is responsible for race strategy, the safety of the crew and equipment, and ultimately, for ensuring that every single rower knows exactly what to do and when to do it.  The coxswain, not coincidentally, is the only person facing the direction the boat is moving: forward.

From the moment the crew puts hands on the boat, the coxswain is in charge. The crew places the highest level of trust in the coxswain, understanding the importance of their role in contributing to the whole. Every individual is incredibly important– the sum of everyone is exponentially greater than any one person.  If one person, for one second, loses focus or misses a call, accidents happen, people get hurt, equipment can break, and races are lost.

Great coxswains (like great crisis leaders) are part visionary, part strategist, part coach and always operating within a predictive mindset while considering each nuance. 

In any crisis, it only takes one action or incident, sometimes deceivingly minor, to derail an organization.  At the moment a crisis occurs on the water, the leadership of the coxswain becomes even more important; the crew always knows whom to follow. When a crisis occurs in your organization, do you have a coxswain? Does your crew know where to look for guidance, strategy, and recovery? Do you have someone that is “facing forward” and can see the big picture from the outside?

Imagine trying to move a 60-foot racing shell forward, while facing backwards, continuing to row, coordinating everyone else in your boat and constantly turning around to see if you’re going to hit something. You can’t do it. It’s no different than trying to handle a crisis that is happening in your own organization without independent crisis leadership.

On the water or in an office, something eventually happens that will throw the whole crew off balance, off course and threaten to sink the boat. Crisis management is important because it isn’t whether or not the event that happens is large or small, but the ripple effect and how it is managed and contained.  Rowing is one of the most beautiful sports to watch; from a distance, a synchronized crew looks flawless, its minor mistakes not visible to those on shore.  It is analogous to your company’s reputation. Outsiders don’t see or know every nuance or issue that occurs “in the boat.” But before a crisis occurs and it affects reputation—how the outside world perceives your organization—the smartest thing you can do is find a confident, capable, and highly experienced crisis leadership team who will get your crew rowing smoothly again, in the right direction.

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