How strong leaders handle surprises


COMMENTARY The other day, a reader sent me this quote by Napoleon Bonaparte: "A leader has the right to be beaten, but never the right to be surprised." I don't know if I'd put it quite that way, but I would definitely say that, in business as in war, it's better to surprise than to be surprised.

On the other hand, we live in a universe that tends to be ever more chaotic, despite all biological efforts to the contrary. Random things happen, people have free will and competitors do the unexpected. In other words, like it or not, surprise happens.

Now, I'm sure some of you think you can minimize the impact of surprises by effective planning. Actually, you can't. By definition, a surprise is something you didn't plan for, or it wouldn't be a surprise.

Others will say you can take advantage of surprises by being prepared because, as we all know, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. These aren't the kind of surprises I'm talking about. These are not opportunities. These are what I call "Oh, s**t moments." Here's an example.

Last week, California got hit by a wind storm the likes of which I've never seen. I woke up on Thursday morning to all sorts of destruction around my property. Power was out and, to this day, so is our telephone land line. Dealing with all that was definitely not on my original to-do list for the day.

Ironically, it felt just like when I was a corporate executive. There were lots of days like that. You'd show up at work expecting to do x, y and z and end up putting out fires and solving all sorts of crazy problems instead. When it was all over you had a beer or three and hoped tomorrow would be more normal.

On the other hand, the truth is that I lived for that sort of thing. I don't like admitting this, but I probably thrive on chaos because of the adrenaline rush. It makes you feel so alive. Oddly, when things are too calm and there aren't any hot problems to solve or crises to manage, I look for little things to pick on. I become a control freak.

Ironic that a chaos junky can also be a control freak, isn't it? I bet a shrink would have a field day with that one. But I digress.

From a leadership standpoint, surprises can be really tricky no matter which side of the surprise you're on. If you're doing the surprising in order to throw your competitors for a loop, for example, you might want to make sure you're not also surprising your own employees, customers or shareholders. I know that sounds sort of dumb, but you see executives do that sort of thing all the time.

I think Netflix CEO Read Hastings found that out the hard way when he made a critical pricing change to better align the company with its streaming video business, but the move backfired as subscribers jumped ship in droves and investors lost confidence in the once high-flying company.

If you're the one being surprised, it helps if you can compartmentalize the risk and fear and put it away in a dark corner of your brain to be dealt with at a more opportune time while you calmly focus on the crisis at hand. Unfortunately, that's more or less psychopathic, so there are negative side affects to being that way, as yours truly knows all too well.

Leaders are far better off dealing with surprises by actually feeling that familiar twinge of fear, being genuinely aware of the risks, and still possessing enough self-confidence and inner strength to calmly assess the situation, obtain good information on what's going on as quickly as possible, come up with an action plan, tell all the key stakeholders what they need to know, then do what needs to be done.

Unfortunately, that's not really a prescriptive "how to" thing, since you pretty much either have the confidence to pull it off or you don't. But the good news is that it does come partly from experience. So how you handle surprises provides an excellent gauge of how far along you've come on the road to becoming a strong leader, as long as you're honest with yourself about your performance.

Just so you know, if you freeze up like a deer in the headlights, throw a temper tantrum or look for people to blame, you've got a long way to go.