The Perfect Storm: or How to Plan a Leadership Crisis

In Sebastian Junger’s award winning novel, “The Perfect Storm”, a confluence of conditions combined to form a killer storm in the North Atlantic. The strong-willed and stubborn captain ignored the warnings and forged ahead, mortally endangering his crew and his ship. A leadership transition can unleash the perfect storm organizationally in much the same way. Often we find many boards even seek the thrills that may come with a leadership crisis.

Denial is a great avoidance mechanism. For most organizations, it is just too painful to think that your beloved executive could be lured away by another organization. The board knows they have a star — why worry? It never occurs to you that others may recognize that star power and actively recruit it. Your ED’s health or family crisis would never be serious enough for it to take precedence over the organization; that happens to other folks. And of course, your executive director is so committed to your agency and its mission that he or she would never leave on their own, let alone with only two weeks notice.

Untested assumptions also work. Surely a founder or visionary leader has built a strong staff by hiring capable people and cultivating their leadership skills. The board can rely on its legal members to provide pro bono advice, no matter that not one attorney has ever worked on non-profit issues and each carries a heavy caseload. The same is true for board members who volunteer to help with the search for a new executive. Who needs a professional guide to navigate through the shoals?

Recruiting is so much fun the first time that many boards do it over and over again. Repeated executive turnover saps an organization’s internal resources and frequently keeps it in limbo, with a high level of uncertainty about what will happen next. Many organizations bask in extended periods of under-performance, with cumulative organizational costs, ranging from high staff and board turnover to lost revenue and missed opportunities for program growth.

If you are like most organizations, you believe you can survive and will not be allowed to fail. After all, you are doing important work, and the funders will provide. Board members don’t worry about their nonprofit’s financial performance or its cash flow, even if they could decipher the murky reports they receive. Poorly managed executive transitions incur high costs to organizations and the communities they serve. No matter — stakeholders will rush to the rescue, throwing out lifelines for important missions and saving hemorrhaging organizations.

The best ways to ensure your perfect storm:

  • Avoid any opportunity to assess leadership performance;
  • Eliminate all succession planning talk from your strategic discussions;
  • Ignore administrative support, infrastructure or operational systems needs that would ensure you have the appropriate, skilled hands on deck;
  • Invite board members or unprepared staff members to fill your leadership vacuum;
  • Rely on board members to conduct your search or undertake other assignments pro bono;
  • Broadcast your vacancy widely, then accept the first hungry prospects;
  • Keep everyone in the dark — guessing is much more entertaining;
  • Allow your best and brightest to jump ship.

Crisis management can get that adrenalin pumping and distract your board from its primary responsibilities: navigating the ship and charting the organization’s future course. You can steer the board into the myriad day-to-day tasks that arise in a leadership vacuum, i.e. skip planning, guarantee your stakeholders that the going may get rocky and that lots of surprises lie ahead. Leadership planning is boring — and no match for the excitement that comes from crisis management and an uncertain future — all the conditions you need to create your own perfect storm.

On the other hand …

If you’d rather sail in calmer seas and know you can sleep peacefully at night under the stars, contact us and discuss your leadership transition needs.