United by the Crisis—Strengthened Out of It

The joint fight against an existential threat is able to weld people together in an organization. The prerequisite for this is a climate of psychological safety and leadership with purpose and trust instead of command and control.

The famous poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost ends with the lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” In the same way, executives are faced with the choice between the romantically overgrown path towards a leadership that is essentially based on purpose and trust and self-organization on the one hand, and the already well-trodden path of classical-hierarchical management with command and control on the other.

This choice has always existed, but now in times of crisis it is being made with new drama, because now it seems to be no longer a choice between good and better, but rather a question of to be or not to be. In this respect, it now requires a great deal of courage to take the less trodden path or—if already taken—to follow it consistently. Especially when in many places the strong captain on the bridge is being praised and demanded right now.

But perhaps, precisely because of the crisis, it is even easier to take this path towards purpose and trust. The shock of an existential threat may at least temporarily lift individuals in the organization out of their profane internal competition and allow them to experience a strong focus on a common purpose in the struggle for survival. The existential distress of the crisis is able to weld an organization together.

Fear of a threat to the community unites. But fear of someone within the community divides and corrodes. It corrupts both him who uses fear and him who fears.

Peter F. Drucker

However, the decisive factor is that leadership, especially now, on the one hand provides psychological safety on the inside and, on the other hand, ensures relentless clarity about the situation, the threat on the outside and the joint strategy to fight it. If this succeeds, one can hope for the creativity and motivation of the people concerned and thus for solutions and ways that no single captain, however brilliant, could ever imagine. If there is a lack of safety in particular, this will only drive the wedge of competition even deeper between people.

The crisis and the joint fight against the threat requires unity. If this unity is based on purpose and trust, people will be united by the shared experience and the organization will emerge from the crisis with a stronger sense of unity. On the other hand, those who want to impose unity through command and control in a culture of pressure and fear will only receive short-term obedience and will miss this unique opportunity.

The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation, and the first step towards cooperation lies in the hearts of individuals.

Bertrand Russell (1954), Man’s Peril

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