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Be Humble: Crisis Leadership is an Exercise in Humility

June 03, 2020 - 4 min read

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn on April 30, 2020.

I recently participated in a webinar on the topic of leadership. The experience gave me a new perspective on what it means to be a leader in difficult times. 

I’ve heard it said, “Anyone can lead an organization when everything is great. The true test of leadership is what you do when all hell breaks loose.” My experience with leadership, organizations, and crises tells me this is very true. 

The current crisis demands good leadership

Many IT and security people become leaders (CIOs and CISOs) due to their technical abilities and accomplishments. Often, they have little to no training or experience in leading people. They tend to manage tasks instead of “to boldly go.” This works if everything goes well, and many of these leaders accumulate higher levels of importance and responsibility. 

But now that the environment has changed, it’s easy to see that CIO and CISO leaders minted only through technical prowess have a soft set of skills that don’t adapt well in a crisis. Any crisis tests a leader’s ability. Some leaders fold under the strain, others rise to the occasion. When the NotPetya attack hit Merck, for example, CISO Terry Rice successfully led his organization by approaching the problem as a leadership challenge that required technical acumen, rather than as a technical problem alone. This current situation is shining a harsh light on how people lead, what good leadership looks like, and the value of good leadership to an organization. 

In a crisis, often we see people get angry and frustrated with the need for action. But we also lack information that could drive good action. Lack of information during a crisis is like a fog that hides the crucial information that leaders need. We need action, but action without good data makes things worse. In the military, this is known as the “fog of war.” The responsibility of picking good action falls to the leaders. Good leaders use experience (including others' experience) to make the best decision.

How do we lead in an uncertain time?

The most important leadership trait is humility. Humility provides us a way to navigate the fog of war. We leaders are often reluctant to admit, “I don’t know.” We’re supposed to know. If we don’t, we fear the perception of weakness -- or even worse, of being undeservedly in charge. But the moment we refuse to say “I don’t know” is exactly the moment bad decisions get made. 

Humility is key at this moment. Leaders can’t and don’t have every answer. Leaders are responsible for making the decision, but the information required to make the decision doesn’t always come from us. There are many individuals in any organization that might have the right information, or the right perspective, or the right data. They may even know more than us. The true test of leadership is letting them help. It requires strength of character to turn to these people and say, “Help me make the right decision.” A good leader is comfortable with (or at least not ruled by) their own ignorance. This allows them to freely solicit information and data to make better, more informed decisions. 

Humility is a strength, not a weakness 

Humility drives us to think about our team members as instructors, rather than competitors. We’ve all experienced “the horrible boss.” All of us have worked with supervisors who belittle our contributions but then use them to their advantage. In a crisis, it is easy to become that kind of person. Don’t. Look around for contributors, and celebrate their efforts. Lift them up, and put them in the spotlight. 

Leaders use humility to build trusting relationships. We can’t lead without the trust of our teams. They will only give their best to people they trust. A relationship of trust is built on three main components: 

  • Integrity: Make fair decisions that demonstrate impartiality. 
  • Competency: Make well-supported decisions based on data and need.
  • Consistency: Make rational decisions that offer stability. 

If we have integrity, people know they can trust us. If we are competent, they know we will do due diligence. If we are consistent, they can depend on our leadership. The only way to meet these three criteria is through humility: Admit we don’t know everything and let the people who can help us shine. 

As leaders, we know that we will make mistakes. We will fail many times on the way to becoming a good leader (and even after). Leadership is a skill that requires introspection, training, and practice. Leadership isn’t a light switch we can flip on: the skills and experience that create good leaders are hard-won but critical. Knowing when and how to get help with big decisions requires humility, and is key to making good decisions in a crisis. 

Organizations need good technology leaders now more than ever. They are essential for getting us through this crisis. 

Be humble. 

Stan Lowe is the Global CISO for Zscaler.

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