Leadership under pressure: the two worst mistakes

I have been thinking a lot about what happens when a leader gets under severe pressure, usually because things are not going according to plan. It seems to me this is the very essence of real leadership and where leaders can really justify their salaries. BUT according to Professor Dietrich Dorner, in his excellent book The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations, there are two very tempting but ultimately disastrous tangents a leader can pursue in a crisis instead of addressing the real issues.

The Logic of Failure

Both tangents (flights) are in fact forms of denial and isolate the leader from their people and the harsh reality of the situation.
Lets look very briefly at each:
Horizontal Flight – Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic….
In horizontal flight the leader becomes obsessed with admin and trivia. This acts as a huge comfort blanket to them in the crisis. For example, the company is going down but the leader is locked away personally designing a new logo or selecting a new stationery supplier.
Vertical Flight – When the going gets tough – the stubborn act dumb…
In vertical flight the leader is convinced that despite all the evidence to the contrary the mission is still on plan and that they are the only one who can actually see it. Listening and empathising with others in the enterprise is considered a major weakness which they must avoid. The leader believes that “Tough leadership is required at this point”.
Dorner sums it up very nicely

“We may resort to “horizontal flight,” pulling back into a small, cozy corner of reality where we feel at home … Or we may resort to “vertical flight,” kicking ourselves free of recalcitrant reality altogether and constructing a more cooperative image of that reality. Operating solely within out own minds, we no longer have to deal with reality but only with what we happen to think about it.”

If your leader has already taken one or even both of these flights – what can you do?
The leaders inner team need to be brave and confront them in extremely stark terms.
Start one on one and then do it as a group.
If they won’t listen then get rid of them – no one persons ego is worth crashing the organization for.
It is, of course, much better never to get in this position by doing two things:
1) Make sure that you find and nurture leaders who are willing to listen to, and act on, contrary views to their own.
2) Then ensure they are not allowed to surround themselves with a team of direct reports who are merely “yes” men or women.