It’s easy to lead when times are good and a rising tide is lifting all boats. It’s far trickier to lead in a crisis.

Just last week, we had an example at the University of Missouri of how a series of events, poorly handled, led to a crisis point and the resignation of the university’s president and its chancellor.

Since people generally don’t go to work in the morning with the objective of mishandling a situation or causing a crisis to occur, the likelihood is that being thrust into a crisis could happen to any of us if we’re not careful.

That’s why it’s worth stepping back to examine what we can do when we’re in charge.

Prevention Is The Best Cure

In an ideal world, leading in a crisis is about dealing with issues before they become huge and take on a life of their own.

In the University of Missouri situation, there were at least four prior incidents leading up to recent events that, if properly handled, could have addressed the racial unrest and prevented the blowup.

It’s like gas leaking in a building – if there are no safety valves, escape valves, or other mechanisms for letting fresh air in, there ultimately will be an explosion.

All of which leads to three conclusions that are just as true of leading a team as it is of the events that occurred at University of Missouri.

Accepting bad behavior will ultimately sink you

As Jack Welch reminds us, the people who are “bad apples” are poison to the organization, even if they are strong performers. If you allow them to continue unscathed, the damage they do to the culture and overall competitiveness will outweigh the near term benefits of their commercial results.

Problems ignored just become bigger

Even if things look like a molehill at the moment, you’ve got to look ahead and figure out it will grow to become a mountain, at which point it becomes too hard to surmount. It’s like finding a lump on your body and not getting it checked out right away.

Perhaps it’s a good time to ask ourselves what we’re overlooking and hoping will go away?

Certain kinds of issues have the capacity to become really big

That’s where it’s crucial to recognize what the “hot spot” issues are – the ones that could escalate dramatically without provocation. What constitutes a “hot spot” issue depends on the context, and can change over time, so it pays to be aware of what’s going on beyond the specifics of the incident at hand.

Using a hurricane analogy, it’s useful to determine when an issue is a “Category One”, which is relatively mild, versus when it’s a “Category 5”, which can cause catastrophic damage.

What Leaders Can Do To Prevent A Crisis

On the prevention front, leaders can:

Look at situations through multiple lenses

This will help you recognize issues as they are brewing, and calibrate how severe they are. You never know how something will land with other people, but you’ll have a better chance if you look at it from their point of view and not just your own. Even taking my book club as an example, the six of us read the same book and have very different reactions to and interpretations of it.

Take care of the “small stuff”

Recognize that a series of smaller events can cumulate to a flash point, and reward your team for addressing issues while they are still small.

Create a regular dialogue with key stakeholders

Developing the relationship and lines of communication beforehand gives you “cash” in the relationship “bank”. This not only helps you gain insights that may prevent future conflict, but also allows you to message your true intent on an ongoing basis.

Surround yourself with wise counsel

Form a coalition of people who understand the range of issues you are likely to deal with, possess good instincts about what is “the right thing to do,” and do not have vested interests that keep them from giving you that advice.

What Leaders Can Do When A Crisis Hits

When crisis hits – and it can happen to any leader – then:

Convene your wise counsel

Listen with an open mind and ask good questions. However, remember that you are the ultimate decision-maker and the one who must live by the consequences.

Engage robustly with the issue

Focus your mind and energies on the crucial actions, and the sequencing of those actions. As one of the University of Missouri donors said, “(In a crisis, a leader must) be abundantly honest, work quickly, and control the message.” The way you kick into high gear (or not) also gives you an opportunity to show what you and your team are made of. The classic example of doing this well is the J&J Tylenol recall.

Don’t light a match at the wrong time

In a crisis situation, you’re in the equivalent of a tinderbox, and things that would be fine to say normally can cause the situation to ignite and explode. You and your team need to stay conscious of what’s effective in the crisis context. What’s too loud in a library can be not loud enough in a football stadium.

Use it to build stronger relationships

How you handle the situation matters. A lot. The way people behave when the chips are down shows their true character. As with all relationships, they can become stronger when you work together to resolve conflict on a basis of mutual respect.

And a word to the opposition

If you’re on the other side, facing leaders who aren’t paying attention and frustrated that nothing is changing, then look for the “leverage point.” That is, find out what they care about and will take notice of. That gives you negotiating leverage.

As the saying goes, sometimes you have to hit them where it hurts in order to get taken seriously.

What finally got the administration’s attention at University of Missouri was the football team threatening to boycott the weekend game, which would have cost the university over $1mm as well as a host of other problems. That was a brilliant way to bring the administration to the table to finally focus and have the necessary conversations. Ultimately, the President resigned 36 hours later and the Chancellor shortly after that.

Whether you’re leading the offense or the defense, there are important lessons to be learned from the recent situation at University of Missouri.

More than anything, my takeaway is that when someone is in a seat of responsibility, they must take a stand over unacceptable behavior and be willing to deal with issues head on. And if they don’t, it’s fair game for others to hit ‘em where they’ll pay attention.

What’s your experience of leading in a crisis, and what strategies have you used to successfully prevent it altogether? Share your experience in the comments below.