This Warren Buffet 1-Liner Nails What Separates Great Leaders From Average Ones

CNBC’s financial guru, Jim Cramer, recently brought up a Warren Buffett quote, saying that the quote is “the perfect tagline for this awful earnings season”. 

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who is swimming naked.”

Funny. True. Applicable to more than just a bad earnings period. (Cramer was using the quote to say that in this unsettled market we’ll see which CEO’s actually have a credible plan and which ones don’t)

It also reminds me that in times of adversity (when the tide goes out), our true character is exposed.

Use such times to show yours.

The best leaders never forget this and know that it’s one of the most lasting impressions they’ll ever leave. I’ve seen it over and over, great leaders memorably separate themselves from the pack when they shine in times of crisis.

I vividly recall two different scenarios from my days in the corporate world. In the first case, in the midst of a crisis, I witnessed a frenzied, unfocused leader engage in finger-pointing, yelling, excuse-making, and truth-stretching. It permanently changed how I viewed that leader–and not in a good way. I never forgot the transgression, committed in a time when we most needed strong leadership.

I also clearly recall a second scenario, again in the midst of a crisis, where I witnessed a seasoned leader act in control, with great humility, clear direction, over-communication, and empathy. It permanently changed how I viewed that leader–for the better–building on an already strong level of appreciation.

You obviously want to be in the second scenario. So, keep Buffet’s 1-liner top of mind the next time you face adversity. Then, follow the same rules that I try to in times of crisis.

1. Start with the “Five C’s”.

Calm, Candor, Communication, Concern, and Courage.

Be the eye of the storm. A calm, cool and collected leader is a beacon. Never forget how many others take cues from you. Be candid but provide reality and hope. Over-communicate. In the absence of your communication employees will fill in the blanks with worst-case assumptions. Take the time to thank the firefighters fighting on the front lines. Be brave. Rarely does taking small, incremental steps affect the change needed in times of crisis.

2. Get clear on reality.

Slow down and simplify the situation. Cut through confusion and don’t underreact or overreact. Your team will step up if they know exactly what the State of the Union is. Too many leaders jump from action to action just for the sake of doing something–often losing sight of what’s really happening/what’s really needed.

3. Create a unity of effort.

Set a big, bright goal that everyone can rally around to see you through the adversity. Assemble a small, nimble coalition of experts for broad problem-solving input but quick action. Roll up your sleeves and flow to the work. With a North Star goal in place, put a detailed plan in place, line up the resources needed, and stay flexible as things are likely to change.

4. Be visible up the chain and on the front line.

Your leaders want to know how things are progressing. Pull on that chain of command to help–chains exist to provide added strength in times of need. That’s why it’s not called a “thread of command”.

5. Drive out fear.

Job number one is to steer the ship back on course. There will be time to constructively learn from who did/didn’t do what. And remember you and your team really are all in it together. Our mortal enemy is ignorance of the fact that the enemy is external.

Follow these rules and the only thing that will be exposed the next time the tide goes out will be your leadership talent.