When leadership is easiest (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Leadership is easiest in a crisis.

Crisis provides motivation and mutual trust, something leaders have to provide themselves in less urgent times. Crisis also provides alignment of purpose, allowing leaders the luxury of authoritarian decision-making. In less urgent times, leaders must consult with others, building alignment of purpose through the hard, delicate, necessary work of careful consensus building.

One year ago, this country was thrown into crisis. President Bush and his team get full credit for their response. History, however, will judge George Bush less on his response to the crisis than on what he does now with our country reeling, not from the crisis of an enemy attack but from ongoing economic assault.

This assault isn’t a crisis. It’s a systemic problem, the result of America’s business leaders taking no responsibility for anything or anyone beyond the price of a share of stock.

Leading any organization through the solution to a systemic problem is much, much harder than leading one through a crisis. Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt: His greatness lay less in his response to the attack on Pearl Harbor than in his response to the Great Depression. By putting people back to work and through his weekly radio broadcasts he gave people hope. Arguably, it was by restoring America’s belief in a better future that he could lead the country through World War II.

When you read how world leaders deal with issues, do more than shake your head and say, “Good job,” or “Oh, my.” You’re reading more than just news or history. You’re reading an instruction manual on how and how not to lead. Take advantage of it.

Leadership is easiest in a crisis, which is why so many bad leaders create crises when none exist. This is as true when a bad manager uses preposterous deadlines to justify a project death march as when a political leader distracts his citizens from his own corruption and repressive policies by starting a war.

A year ago I wrote, “As a business leader you aren’t a mere spectator. Those who report to you need leadership right now and will respond to it.”

With a bad economy, low profits, and pervasive employee cynicism about CEO competence and compensation, that’s more true today than it was a year ago. Providing leadership is much harder now than a year ago, too, because leadership is easiest in a crisis, and the crisis is over.

What’s left is all the hard work.