Published by:

  • Leadership – Speeches – Workshops
  • Personal Training – Consulting
  • Leadership – Marketing – Strategy

Vol. 1, No. 11
(626) 791-8973


© 2003 By William A. Cohen, PhD,  The Institute of Leader Arts,

Last month we noted seven important areas on which to focus in conducting a turnaround, or in any crisis situation. These are:

  1. Establish a clear objective
  2. Communicate with those you lead
  3. Act boldly
  4. Be decisive
  5. Dominate the situation
  6. Lead by example
  7. Hire and fire wisely

This month, we’re going to look mainly at military examples. The lessons are important. If a leader can turn a crisis situation around on the battlefield, he or she can do the same for the crisis and turnaround situations in the boardroom. Let’s look at each in more detail and see what we can learn.

Establish A Clear Objective Quickly

When Montgomery was given command of the British Eighth Army in North Africa during World War II , he wasn’t just told, “Here’s your Army, see what you can do with it.” He was given a definite objective by his boss, Field Marshal Alexander: Alexander told him: “Destroy Rommel and his Army.”

A turnaround was badly needed. The German Army under General Erwin Rommel had soundly defeated Montgomery’s predecessors. Morale in the British 8th Army was low.

Montgomery knew that having a clear objective was critical:” I hold the view that the leader must know what he himself wants. He must see his objective clearly and then strive to attain it; he must let everyone else know what he wants and what are the basic fundamentals of his policy. He must, in fact, give firm guidance and a clear lead.”

Montgomery’s receiving and setting of a clear objective immediately helped turned the tide permanently for the British in North Africa during World War II. It demonstrates both the value and necessity of setting a clear objective right away in turnaround situations.

Step Number Two: Communicate Fast, Accurately, and Repeatedly

General Patton was a real believer in communicating. So much so, that in training, he kept a microphone constantly nearby. Porter B. Williamson, one his officers during this period reported: “Our desert radio broadcasting station had one unusual feature. There was a microphone in Gen. Patton’s office and a second microphone was by his bed in his tent. Day and night Gen. Patton could cut off all broadcasting and announce a special message or order from his personal mike. When the music would click off we knew we would hear, ‘This is Gen. Patton.’ Then clearly, accurately, and unmistakably General Patton gave his instructions, telling everyone exactly what he wanted done.

You cannot communicate your vision, objectives, and goals too often or in too many different ways. The more layers in your chain of command, the more likely it is that your message will get garbled between you and the individuals who must implement what you want done. So the more often you can get your message out: and the more different media in which you can do this, the better.

Also, by repeating and promoting your message, your subordinates will know that you really mean it, and will begin to quote you and promote you themselves.

Of course, the words you chose in communicating your message can also be very important. You may also be familiar with “I have not yet begun to fight,” “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” or “I shall return.” All were uttered by leaders in battle in communicating with their men. They had a tremendous impact on the leader’s taking charge. There is no law against leaders in non-combat situations voicing their objectives in a dramatic way, either.

If you want your words to get out fast . . . to be repeated again and again and maybe to go down in history: communicate in a colorful and interesting way.

Be Bold

There is an old saying that fortune favors the bold. I don’t know if this is true or not, however, I do know that a turnaround situation is not the time for timidity. Patton was known as “Old Blood And Guts” because of his dramatic manner of speaking. He was a take-charge, bold, decisive leader. But he was not reckless. His boldness was for a definite purpose.

Patton said: “In planning any operation, it is vital to remember, and constantly repeat to oneself, two things: ‘In war nothing is impossible, provided you use audacity.’ If these two principles are adhered to, with American troops victory is certain.”

Let’s look at Patton’s two principles again. They form one concept in two parts. Patton refers only to war. But you will find his concept true in all leadership situations. Nothing is impossible if you use audacity. Audacity is no more than a synonym for boldness.

It means that as long as your contemplated actions are not illegal, unethical, or dishonest, you should not be afraid to proceed simply because risk is involved. If you believe you are right, go ahead!

Be A Decisive Leader

People do not like to follow leaders who cannot make up their minds or have trouble coming to a decision. To take charge means coming to a decision and communicating it as soon as practicable.

During World War II, a bomber group suffered excessive losses over several difficult missions. Morale was so bad that higher headquarters actually considered disbanding the unit. If that weren’t enough, the group sent 18 bombers on a mission. They ran into such incredible opposition that only six aircraft returned. Now they were really in trouble.

If you saw the old movie “Twelve O’clock High,” with Gregory Peck, you saw a fictionalized account which incorporated this true story. The Group Commander had to take decisive action, or he knew it was all over. He received permission for a “stand-down” of two days.

The first day he ordered the bar opened and allowed his crews to cope with their depression as best they could. Meanwhile he and his staff went to work and planned a program of intense activity for the next day for every man in the group. It began at reveille and lasted until evening. There were inspections, drills, target study, and practice missions. Every man worked hard the entire day. By night they were exhausted and had no difficulty sleeping.

On the following day, more relaxed, they flew a successful combat mission without excessive losses. Over the following weeks, replacements came and were trained, and the group was effective until the end of the war.

Maybe you think that you have trouble coming to a decision because you don’t have all the facts. Let me assure you that you will never have all the facts. That’s just the nature of leadership. This means that almost all of the time, you must make decisions without knowing everything that would help you to make a decision.

Now it is true that the longer you wait, the more facts you will have. Sometimes it is necessary to wait for important facts before making a decision. But you must weigh the delay against the negative impact. Elements of the situation can change. An opportunity may be lost. Your competition may take the advantage because of your indecisiveness. Those who follow you will at best be uncomfortable at not having a decision. If you make indecisiveness a habit, they will not want to follow you.

Some leaders I have seen tell themselves that they are putting off a decision in order to get more facts. But the real reason is that for one reason or another they are afraid to make a decision. Failing to make a decision is also a decision. It is a decision to leave everything to chance or the initiative of others. It is not a sign of a take-charge leader. And it ultimately results in a failure.

To be a take-charge leader, follow the recommendation of W. Clement Stone, the self-made multi-millionaire. Stone says that when you feel yourself putting off anything without reason say these three words out loud: “Do it now!”

Dominate the Situation

As a leader in circumstances where you must take charge, you must dominate the situation, or it will dominate you. By this, I mean that you must take positive actions to gain control. You must continue to initiate actions to maintain control.

If you fail to do this, you will spend your time and energy continually responding to the actions of others, or to crises of your environment. We call this “firefighting.” And firefighting will steal all of your time, leaving no time for you to take charge with new initiatives.

There are two reasons for this and they aren’t complicated. In any take-charge situation, there is a desperate need for leadership. If you do not take the initiative, someone must fill the leadership vacuum. Someone else will attempt to take charge. You may be the assigned leader. This other person may not be as experienced, as qualified, or as trained as you. It makes no difference. If you fail to act at once and take the initiative, someone else will attempt to fill the leadership role and you will have to fight to regain it.

The second reason why you must immediately dominate the situation has to do with the environment. If you fail to take the initiative, the environment tends to build up on you. First, you have one problem. Now you have two problems. Now you have yet another. Pretty soon the situation becomes unmanageable.

To Dominate The Situation, Take The Initiative

To dominate any take charge situation, all that is required is that you take the initiative. Another words, you let others or your environment play catch-up to your actions rather than visa versa.

When Montgomery took charge of the Eighth Army, his predecessor anticipated a further withdrawal in response to Rommel’s actions. Montgomery turned the situation around by refusing to withdraw and immediately planning for an attack. Imagine, after one day he went to bed satisfied that he was on the “way to success!” Other historical commanders and leaders also went to bed happily knowing that they had taken the initiative.

Lead By Example

A very old leadership maxim states that you should be willing to do everything you ask those you lead to do. However, in a take-charge situation, it goes above a willingness. At times, you must actually do everything you ask those who follow you to do.

Let me tell you about a leader and hero by the name of, Douglas Munro. Douglas Munro was Signalman First Class in the Coast Guard. On September 27th, 1942, Signalman Munro was a Petty Officer in charge of 24 Higgins boats, a type of craft used for landing vehicles and personnel. Munro’s boats were engaged in evacuating a battalion of Marines trapped by a superior number of enemy forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal.

Under constant fire from enemy machineguns, Signalman Munro led five of his landing craft towards the shore. The fire was so intense that he knew they would be unable to evacuate the Marines. So he positioned his small craft, with its two guns, as a shield between the beachhead and the enemy. Naturally, he drew most of the fire in this position. His boat was hit repeatedly. But through his actions, they got the trapped Marines off the island. He saved the lives of many who would otherwise have perished. With the task nearly completed, this brave hero was killed by enemy fire. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Few leaders in business or civilian life need to put their lives at risk or to sacrifice themselves for others as did Douglas Munro. But we can be inspired by his act and recognize that leaders in all fields, if they really are leaders, must lead by example, especially when taking charge in crisis situations.

Parachute General James Gavin jumped with his division on the “D-Day” invasion of Normandy. Young Colonel George S. Patton led his tanks on foot against the enemy during World War I. As a Brigadier General in the same war, MacArthur went forward with the first line of his men in the attack. Major General Moshe Dayan of the Israeli Army came under direct fire while up front in an attack during the Sinai Campaign of 1956 and his jeep driver was killed. Dayan was Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army at the time.

All of these men were in turnaround or crisis situations. It was time to lead by personal example, and they did.

Hire And Fire

In a turnaround situation, you don’t have time to fool around. You must get rid of those individuals that are performing poorly, and you have to replace these people with people who can do the job.

For most people, firing is not an easy thing to do. Those you must discharge may have worked at a job for sometime. They may or may not have done their best. Either way, firing can mean a loss of money, prestige, security, and sense of self worth. Still, if you are going to be true to yourself and to your organization as a leader, you have no choice.

Remember, we’re not talking about ordinary day-to-day management. We’re speaking about crisis situations. If your organization has a worthwhile purpose and mission, it must come first under these circumstances.

This is easier to see in warfare, where the acts of people spell the difference between life and death, victory and defeat. It is more difficult to understand in peacetime situations.

What harm it is if you keep people on board who are not performing up to standard? First, these individuals are probably incapable of doing any better than they already have. Otherwise, the take charge situation wouldn’t exist. Also, it is essential to get people in important positions who can do the job as you want it done. You can’t do this with incumbents occupying the key positions. Finally, you can’t motivate others to go all out in a crisis when you demonstrate that you are willing to except less than the very best from others.

Now I want to make certain that you understand fully what I am saying. Just because you are a leader doesn’t mean that you fire everyone in sight that you think you can replace with someone better. That’s not ethical. It demonstrates poor leadership. There may well be situations that are not crises when for various reasons, you should tolerate people in your organization who are not performing to your standards. An individual who is no longer capable of turning in top performance, but who has done a good job in the past may be one example. Also, if possible you should attempt to save a person from being fired first. You do this through counseling and the coaching techniques we’ve discussed earlier.

But in a crisis, turnaround situation, don’t waste time.

Some Guidelines for Firing

If firing needs to be done, do it at once. Here are some guidelines:

  • Don’t mess around with half way measures or second chances.
  • Make the decision to fire, and do so at once.
  • Don’t delegate a firing. Do it yourself.
  • Don’t fire in public. Call the person into your office and do it privately.
  • Be forthright and tell the person why he or she is being fired.
  • Let the person know that you’re not saying a person is no good at any job, only that they haven’t met your standards at this job.
  • Depending on who is being fired, and at what level, get additional help before you act, if required. That is, you may want to talk to your legal people, public relations, the human resources department, an outplacement firm, a psychologist. Or no one. Only you can decide if you need additional help.

Hiring Is Just As Important In A Turnaround Situation

When Lee Iaccoca turned the Chrysler Corporation around, it was the biggest most amazing turn-around situation in this century. Everyone said it couldn’t be done. But Iaccoca went ahead anyway. The U.S. government guaranteed a needed loan. That helped . . . a lot. However, if you think it was just the government guarantee on a loan that made things come out, you would be dead wrong. Iaccoca did it primarily with people. Like General George C. Marshall, he tracked the careers of several hundred executives in his organization. These were kept in a special notebook. So important was this notebook, that he obtained special permission from William Ford, President of the Ford Motor Company to take the notebook with him.

Many of the new executives he brought to Chrysler came from this notebook. According to Iaccoca, “In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product, and profits. People come first. Unless you’ve got a good team, you can’t do much with the other two.”

This should tell you clearly that you should be directly involved with hiring executives that will work with you. If you have a notebook of executives yourself, congratulations. Most leaders aren’t so well prepared. But don’t work if you do not. You can learn a lot through the interview process if you do it right.

The problem with most leaders in putting their team together in a turnaround situation is that they don’t prepare for the interview at all. They ask one or two questions, and if everything seems okay they offer the job. I mean after all, this is a turnaround situation, right?

Seven Steps To Taking Charge In A Crisis or Turnaround Situation

Establish your objective at once. You can’t lead anyone anywhere until you know where you want to go.

  1. Communicate what you want done in a way likely to get the attention of those you lead.
  2. Act boldly. This is not time to be cautious. This is the time to take risks.
  3. Be decisive. Don’t put off making decisions.
  4. Dominate the situation by taking the initiative. If you don’t, the situation will dominate you.
  5. Lead by example. Make your motto “follow me,” and live by it.
  6. Get rid of people that can’t do the job and hire people that can. Do a through job of interviewing to minimize the risk of a bad choice.