Last week, President Obama wasn't the only one speaking about the five-year anniversary of the financial crisis; the business news networks and practically every major newspaper offered opinions on what we should have done during and after the crisis and the lessons we should have learned.
As someone working in the financial industry during those troubled times, I've found that many of these articles have made for interesting reading, but if you really want incredible insights into what those weeks and months were really like, you absolutely must watch the Bloomberg Businessweek and Netflix film, "HANK: Five Years from the Brink." At no other time have the challenges that leaders faced been so unprecedented and the stakes so high.
From my vantage point of helping to identify and nurture leaders at an organization in the financial services industry, I had something of a front-row seat into how our industry responded to the crisis. Here are some of the lessons that I have taken away from it.
Acknowledge and act. Confusion and a lack of responsiveness are both symptoms of shock, and they both can occur in moments of crisis. Additionally, panic and paralysis can take hold when a situation begins to look bleak. The best leaders are the ones who, during emotionally charged moments, are a steady hand at the helm. They assure their teams that they'll work together and do what it takes to get through the difficulties they face. In tough times, leaders don't dwell on what they cannot change; they immediately start moving toward solutions.
Check your compass, not your map. Leaders have a clear sense of who they are and a vision for their organizations and the people they lead. Call it a "moral compass" or a set of values -- but these are women and men who are guided by a set of core principles that help them do what's right. There's been a lot of speculation about what led to the crisis, but I believe a great deal of the cause can be attributed to those in the sector who lost their way -- and focused on developing products and services to make money, instead of to meet real needs for real people. The strong leaders during the crisis, were guided by a sense of purpose, followed their compasses and not some "roadmap" of expectation. These were the leaders that instilled confidence in their organization, and under this leadership, their companies weathered the storm.
Take a nonpartisan approach to collaboration and ideas. When your world is seemingly falling apart, the impulse may be to "duck and cover," but that's the last thing real leaders do. Instead of shutting themselves off, they take it all in. They listen to everyone around them and they seek out different, contrarian views that may be beyond their own comfort zones. In the documentary, Paulson mentions the value of many perspectives when he noted that throughout his career he was able to grow as a leader because he was able to surround himself with people with "different backgrounds, skill sets and experiences" than his own. During the crisis, the organizations that weathered the storm best or were the quickest to rebound, were the ones with leaders who were able to see beyond their own views. They recognized that the world had fundamentally shifted, and they and their organizations changed with it.
Put the right people in the right seats. There's no such thing as a perfect leader. We all have strengths, and we all have weaknesses. Executives who can effectively manage through crises are the ones who understand they cannot "go it alone." To get things done, they are the ones who not only know their strengths, but also understand and compensate for their weaknesses. They make team building a key ingredient to their success.
I know that for many of us, looking back at the financial crisis - even five years from the brink - isn't something we want to revisit, but the lessons learned can provide valuable leadership insights for how we move forward.