The Leader as a Heat Shield


When your organization is under fire or in crisis, you need to see yourself as a heat shield. The metaphor is apt. When a space vehicle re-enters the earth’s atmosphere, the heat shield deflects and diffuses the energy that would otherwise burn up the capsule. Similarly, leaders must act as heat shields for their organizations. People need them to take the heat and at the same time stay cool under fire.

Here are five practices to help you become an effective heat shield and build trust.

First, maintain your perspective. Don’t assume that people’s first reactions are the right ones. Wait, gather data, and act when you have a good idea what’s going on. Phil Jackson, the NBA basketball coach, said he kept his cool by focusing on the big picture, by remembering that the whole season didn’t ride on one game. Bad call by the referee? Jackson just stayed focused on the big picture. He was prepared to deal with the constant media pressure because he’d learned to take his ego out.

Second, keep your cool and use your sense of humor. The head of California’s Public Utilities Commission, when facing hostile questions from the press about her role in the state’s energy crisis, said: “Well, at least I didn’t cause the polar ice caps to melt this year.” Maintaining her sense of humor helped her appear cool, calm and collected.

Third, be honorable. People respect honorable behavior – and nothing is more honorable than accepting responsibility. Accepting responsibility and broadening your sense of responsibility in a crisis is the surest way to maintain trust.

Fourth, comfort people by validating their concerns. When it was announced that Merrill Lynch would be investigated by the Securities exchange Commission, one Merrill manager assembled his employees and said: “We’re feeling a lot of pressure right now, but I know we’re going to come through it, together. I vow to keep you informed every step of the way.” Because he validated their fears, they felt safe.

Finally, have a routine that allows you to vent pressure away from work. Phil Jackson did it through meditation. Bill Clinton jogged and played golf. Every successful leader has some means to vent the heat away from work.

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