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Leading Through a Crisis

Dear Crucial Skills,

I was recently elected leader of a 30,000 person district in Kenya and my leadership is under threat.

For the last three weeks, we have had constant rainfall here. There is water everywhere, rivers have burst their banks, crops have washed away, most roads and bridges have been cut away, and several school buildings and homes have been blown away. Quite a number of deaths have been reported in the process, and most families’ homes no longer offer a good environment for living, as water is oozing through their ground floors. Soon, a malaria outbreak will follow as a result of mosquito bites. Too much water means crop failures and is the beginning of real hunger!

Some begin to question or threaten my leadership. What immediate solution can you give me to lead under such a situation?

Leadership Crisis

Dear Leadership,

Kenya is a second home to me. I have met some remarkable leaders in your country from whom I’ve learned a great deal about human influence. I am happy to hear of your concern for the people you have been asked to serve. I have some very strong opinions about what you need to do to make a difference and solidify your support at this critical time.

In times of threat, people need to know two things from their leaders:

  1. You care about my problems.
  2. You are competent to help.

When people believe these two things about you, they trust you. If people trust your motives and your ability, you have their support.

Now, that’s easier said than done. When everything is broken, what do you do first? How do you show your concern when 1,000 things need attention? If you go to work on five of them, those who feel the most pain about the other 995 will think you don’t care. Furthermore, if you try to work on too many things, you will squander your finite resources while making little progress—thus undermining trust. So what can you do?

When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was re-elected as president of Liberia, the country was in a precarious situation. But she did three things that influenced trust in a remarkable way:

1. Go on a listening campaign. Be visible. Be accessible. Listen a lot. Empathize. Do your best to develop a theory of which problems you should address first. This step must not take so much time that people see you as politicking rather than taking action. However, it is crucial not just that you understand people’s concerns, but that they believe you understand.

2. Prioritize. Having listened deeply, set a small number of concrete and time-bound goals. When President Johnson-Sirleaf finished her listening campaign, she announced some very specific commitments she would complete in the first 150 days. If your community is smaller, you may want to set a tighter timeframe—perhaps seven-day, thirty-day, sixty-day, and ninety-day goals. For example, President Johnson-Sirleaf committed that within 150 days, her administration would:

  • Put 6,000 young people to work on road maintenance and beach clean-up projects.
  • Open 150km of feeder roads, linking thirty communities in two counties.
  • Open 150 new sanitation facilities.
  • Complete eleven reinforced concrete bridges.
  • Open seventy-five community wells in three counties.

Be sure you only make commitments you have the resources to keep. People will understand that you can’t do everything. As you announce these commitments, you are defining the terms by which people will begin to trust you. If you have listened well, and choose things people find important, they will let go of those things you have not committed to do and calibrate their future trust for you on the terms you set.

3. Go public. The next thing President Johnson-Sirleaf did was make weekly progress reports to the country on her commitments. This accomplished two things: 1) it put pressure on those whose job it was to deliver these commitments; 2) it built trust as people saw steady progress over the 150 days. Every week, Liberians were reminded what they could (and could not) expect from their president. And they learned that she had the leadership competence to fulfill her commitments.

Within 150 days, three-fourths of the commitments had been met. Not a perfect record, but far better than people had seen from previous administrations.

If you listen well, prioritize carefully, and go public with both commitments and progress, you can demonstrate to your community that you care about their concerns and that they can trust you to deliver.

I wish you the best in your leadership and service. Thank you for caring enough to put yourself in such vulnerable circumstances at such a crucial time.


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressd in this article are base on the skills and principles taught in Influencer. Learn more about Influencer.

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