Using thought leadership to make decisions in a crisis.
An interview with Thomas Lahnthaler about being prepared for tough choices in a crisis.
Great leaders have to handle tough situations. Inevitably, the time will come when you have to make a hard choice or deal with a crisis. Will you be prepared?
Our guest today is Thomas Lahnthaler, Founder and CEO of The Crisis Compass, an organization which teaches leaders and companies innovative and resource-based crisis management. We start our conversation by discussing the concept of risk and how it relates to Thought Leadership. Thomas explains that “crisis points” are inevitable, and the future is always unknown. We get through crisis points by being prepared, stepping up, and making choices, not by ignoring possible difficulties.
These crisis points are often a source of fear and tunnel vision, even for the best leaders. We tend to rely on assumptions, or feel as if a leader needs to take full responsibility and solve the problem alone. Thomas shares reasons why these assumptions can be dangerous, adding to the feeling of risk. He also addresses the way tunnel vision can be an advantage when specific insights are shared with others, adding a variety of focuses to your own point of view.
Preparing your organization to handle crises means teaching them to share ideas, have empathy, and work in teams that are deeply diverse. These are only a few of the ways Thomas suggests a great leader keep themselves ready for any crisis, and be in the best position to deal with difficulties as they arise.
Three Key Takeaways:
- When aiding others through a crisis, your thought leadership needs to create comfort, establish solid choices, and avoid feeling overwhelmed by risk.
- Exchanging ideas and perspectives is a great way to create thought leadership for crisis preparedness.
- Thought Leadership helps others have smart conversations and create positive teamwork skills, and those habits can carry you through any crisis.
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
And if you need help scaling organizational thought leadership, contact Thought Leadership Leverage!
Bill Sherman How does that leadership help us make better decisions? After all, thought leadership isn’t just an intellectual pursuit. We’re trying to put ideas and insights to use for ourselves as well as the people we serve. My guest today is Thomas Lahnthaler. He’s the CEO of Crisis Compass, who focuses on helping organizations navigate through crisis and make decisions more effectively in his past. He’s done work in conflict management, risk management and disaster management. I’m eager to talk with Thomas today about using thought leadership, ideas and insights to make better decisions before the crisis occurs. I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Thomas.
Thomas Lahnthaler Thanks, Bill. Pleasure to be here.
Bill Sherman I want to explore a little bit. The concept of risk and thought leadership with you, and I know you spend your time thinking about risk from the crisis point of view when you’re in the moment of the Crucible. So maybe we start there and then build out the thought leadership. When you think about risk and decisioning in moments of crisis, how are you thinking about it?
Thomas Lahnthaler Well, that’s an excellent entry point for any conversation. If you ask me, because of course, that’s my background, I look upon crisis as a point in time where, for example, decisions are inevitable. So you have to make decisions because you are at the point where you might be a crossroads. It might be a situation that you maneuvered yourself in or didn’t react. Previously, that led up to this point risk. However, in this particular moment is, for me, something that I’d like mentally. And that’s also when I work with companies and with other leaders to eliminate. Because what beyond what’s beyond the decision is naturally for me, something you don’t know. And particularly in complex systems like medium we are navigating these days. The complexity that we have to navigate, it’s not possible to know what’s beyond it. So technically, everything is a risk. And this is a little bit what also will probably link us to fault leadership later on. I think it’s about really stepping up and accepting that you have to make decisions and not delaying them, but looking at what are my choices. And here is where I like to navigate with my own experience and with the managers and leaders that I work with is to help them create their own options. In addition to natural choices that we have in every, every crisis situations, it’s really about creating her own options based on your resources because that’s where you keep control. That’s where you can actually minimize at least a feeling of risk and the feeling of uncertainty. Because you have the feeling that you create something, you have the feeling you come up with something that’s yours and you can influence whatever you’re going to decide. This is kind of my entry point in my perspective.
Bill Sherman So let’s build on that feeling of risk. And you talked about the need to make a decision. And I think as we get into thought, leadership, thought leadership is not just the intellectual, hey, let’s think big thoughts and not do anything, but leadership is about taking ideas into the present to take action. So let’s stay in your world for a moment. I want to ask you about that feeling of risk and the need for action. Can you give a story or an example of that that really brings that crystallized?
Thomas Lahnthaler What I have experienced many times is that if you’re faced with the options that you have in a crisis, let’s say, for example, a simple situation is, well, do I have to fire many people or not? Because I’m in the crisis situation where we don’t get enough money, we’re not sure like it like it was in the pandemic now or is still probably for a couple of companies around the world that they’re in a situation where they might not have enough business. So the question is, what am I going to do doing it? Let staff go through a change. My business model completely. And all of these are risky choices. Some of them might naturally be presented for the situation. So you might not have enough money to pay on your staff, so you have to maybe think differently anyway. But here it’s for me about not thinking about the risk because I observe very, very often the managers that wealth management teams, crisis management teams think about the outcomes of their potential decisions. And while that’s a fair thought, it’s primarily assumption based and assumptions. In my experience, contribute a lot to an increased feeling of risk. You have to be comfortable with your assumption in order to feel less of a risk. And that is that is a tricky thing because it’s misleading. What assumptions do not come from nowhere? Our assumptions come from our own experiences and biases we have from perspectives that we presented. They’re limited. So I’m trying to maneuver that thinking away from what could potentially happen afterwards because that we will only find out to make the choice. But I want to actually focus on the scope of influence of managers. So taking us back to the example, let’s say like, so what do we have available? Like what resources do we actually have? Because I’ve also noticed that many companies are not even aware of a fraction of the resources that they have at their disposal. And here I’m not only speaking about money and speaking, not speaking about time assets, I’m also speaking about competencies, experience, knowledge, connections, all those things. And they can contribute to you making your own choices and maybe feel more comfortable, more confident in your decisions and consequently feel less of a risk feeling.
Bill Sherman So one of the things that I know when I experience a moment of fear is that I get a sense of tunnel vision. The world shrinks and I only see what’s immediately ahead of me. And I think that’s true. Like you said, in our ability to sense the resources that are just on the periphery of our vision, we forget about what’s available. And so one of the things in terms of behavior is either remembering those things in the moment or moving that sort of decision making process earlier so that you’re not in a moment of fear and you’re not in tunnel vision.
Thomas Lahnthaler Absolutely. And what contributes to often this crisis feeling, and that’s so interesting what you what you just say, because it really is very much in line with what I experience when I work with my clients. It’s this, it’s this sense of urgency, and the sense of urgency is very often actually a sense that that comes out of this crisis narrative. It comes out of a feeling like you are basically in a corner, not, you know, you have to act. And if you’re active previously, yes, you would probably not be in a corner. Crisis management experts and consultants around the world called this avoided or averted crisis. I think they’re not necessarily avoided. It was just you acted upon it earlier. A crisis is then really the moment when you’re basically like, OK, now I don’t have it now. The option of not doing anything anymore is not really there. It would also be a choice that I make, but I still have to kind of I feel I have to do something. And the tunnel vision that you describe is a very is a very common phenomenon. I think that’s also an advantage in many situations. However, what I have made as a habit and what I try to really promote as a habit is really this changing perspectives because we all, even if we all have a tunnel vision, we’ll look at things differently. So if the two of us, for example, would be in a crisis situation and we both have a tunnel vision, it doesn’t mean we see the same things. So if we start to exchange, will we actually see what we perceive, what we think about the situation? We’re already naturally expanding that tunnel. So the exchange of perspectives, the different views on things and really this questioning like what do we know, what do we assume? And maybe to clarify? I’m not against working with assumptions. I just really think it’s important to work to make it explicit if we work with assumptions because it’s natural. I mean, we have to work with assumptions are going to the other point. But you have to know that this is an assumption. It’s not something, you know, because I’ve seen that that companies often fall into that trap where they assume that, for example, have access to a resource or that something is available to them. And it’s not because it’s outside their scope of influence, and they fell in the trap because they made it part of their plans, for example. So it’s changing perspectives and identifying assumptions will be two habits that I really would highly recommend in these situations.
Bill Sherman And so that leads to if we shift the decision point, and I like that language that you used have shifted earlier. You’re still making decision. You’ve still got a moment of crisis. Do we do a or B? It’s information seeking beforehand and then making the informed aware decision with a broader field of view. And I think this is a beautiful sort of place where we can start weaving false leadership into it because one of the ways that I look at the leadership is you look around the corner into the future, you see what is possible either is a risk or opportunity and then say if that’s true. Who needs to know about it? And what do we need to do today? Right. And so it’s not that you’re eliminating the crisis, you’re not eliminating the decision point, you’re preparing for it.
Thomas Lahnthaler And that’s a wonderful way of putting it, because it’s really the preparing for these decision points, because they will come. They are they’re a natural part of our development and I keep trying to point out that we’re constantly developing. So this is not a process change is not something that needs to be put on a on a podium such as saying like, Oh, now we’re changing that, changing constantly. But a crisis is just a moment that’s perceived as an extreme change because the stakes are a lot higher. So if you prepare for those situations, if you if you, as a thought leader, have on the screen that you have to think maybe a couple of steps ahead, you try out different ways of working before they’re necessary. So one way of one way I try to work with this is what I call in an innovative way is to set up these teams that potentially could manage crises but make them renovation teams rather than crisis management teams. It’s just a different way of putting it because the work is the same. They will have to come up with solutions and ideas for critical situations. But if you do that, when you’re not in a critical situation, you have the exact same outcome with less with less stakes and less pressure. So it’s just a way of simply habitually working around the crisis, and I really like that way of preparing for it before preparing for the decision point. Because that’s possible. Maybe and maybe you can build on that with your experience. What I’ve seen a lot, a lot of times happening is that people have ideas and in crisis stuff might be even more extreme than in other situations. But because the stakes are so high, because the pressure is so high. Managers or leaders? For me, that’s not necessarily the same in a crisis situation. Have troubles of letting go of their idea. And in particular, in crisis situations, that actually might be an advantage, so if you have if you have ideas or if you have a situation and say like, so here’s my idea, you develop it further and bring it back to me so that I can make a decision as unbiased as I can be. Because and you have other ideas, other perspectives on your idea and maybe build forward and you get it back, maybe with a little bit of a different face, but it’s still your idea at the core of it. I don’t know if you have experienced this, but I have seen that, that thought leaders when they do this. It’s in a way, a relief. They get really excited about what they get back and they actually feel they have way more engagement. It’s not so lonely at the top. I sometimes hear Newt really literally does statement. It’s this Oh, we’re in this together. I’m not alone. And that actually is empowering at the end of it.
Bill Sherman So I live several things that you said they’re going back to the difference between crisis management and then innovation teams, right? And so I thought of the distinction between firefighting and fire prevention at the end of the day. You don’t want the building on fire. There are several ways of getting that right. And so if you. Socialize an idea. And you tell people, oh, it’s a good idea to change your smoke detector batteries and you talk about, yeah, maybe cut the brush back away from your house so that a wildfire doesn’t happen. You can then seek out other ideas as to how do we make this happen and why? When you try to hold on to an idea too tightly, you limit the good ideas that can come from it, and you also limit the ability for other people to take ownership. And what I like about what you’re talking about there is the willingness to put an idea out to share it and say, Run with it, bring it back to me. Let’s see where it grows. The key for me is ideas grow rather than remain static. If you hold on to an idea and it stays static for too long, that’s the dangerous assumption that you were talking about, right? That is the thing that is no longer true.
Thomas Lahnthaler This is absolute this is exactly what I experience in crisis situations, it’s this the misplaced ownership and almost pride that I have or the feeling or responsibility that is very often on the top of companies. It’s really centralized there and they get it. You have the overall responsibility for your company and it’s just fair. But that doesn’t mean you have to do everything. It’s also impossible to do everything you still at the end of the day, have to run your business so you cannot firefight, run the business, drive the fire truck and all at the same time. You have to let go of some of those things. And the sooner you are able to do this, the more you make it a habit within your company. And it will not. It will disrupt less when a crisis comes, because often the crisis doesn’t affect companies the same way. Let’s take a quick read this. This was a contextual crisis in many ways, but it had different effects on different types of businesses, different sectors. Experience is very, very different. So the key here is really to look at it more holistically, more inclusive and as you say, prepare for different.
Bill Sherman If you are enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about the podcast, please leave a five star review and share it with your friends. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms, as well as at Leveraging Thought Leadership dot com. I want to turn to a story that I know about for you, where, regardless of the amount of preparation, things hit you by surprise. And so they say You applied for a program and I would love for you to tell that story of how what you thought you were signing up for. It didn’t turn out the way that was expected.
Thomas Lahnthaler No, it actually didn’t turn out the way it was expected at all. It’s it was really the low point in my life. So just say because I was very disillusioned, I was very I came out of a very complex working environment. I used to work in humanitarian sphere with crises and conflict management and came out of Afghanistan at that point. So I was really at a motivational level, so I started looking at applying for this program that you mentioned, and it was called the traditional ideation and leadership program something I thought, Well, I’m a trained mediator. That’s interesting traditional. I’ve worked with indigenous people a bit before because it was run by the Aborigines in Australia. So I applied for this being on the other side of the world and I sent my application. Now I’m so background. I’m from Austria and I keep saying like, I don’t know why these two terms are so similar Austria and Australia English, I still haven’t gotten to the core of that. What happened was when I came there, they accepted me and when I came there, it turns out that they were as surprised as I was that I showed up because they thought I was Australian. And then it turns out that they haven’t read my application properly because otherwise I wouldn’t have been accepted because I was the only non-Australian there. Well, it turned out to be a life changing experience for me because I really thought it was going to be a training as, let’s say, in the West anyway or in the northern hemisphere. We would we would probably expect the training to be would get introduced, introduced to different concepts in two areas. And in many ways we did, we were introduced to that, but in a very different way. So I was given only one rule as all my other colleagues who were their guests, and this rule was, you’re not allowed to ask any questions. And of course, this I didn’t take this particularly seriously, but they did. So the Aboriginal community there really did can answer any questions. So every time we put a question forward, they would take no questions observe, listen, learn. And this was highly frustrating. It was very, very difficult because you’re so desperate on understanding concepts that you couldn’t grasp. You’re desperate to get insights into their thinking, into their world views. You have this unique opportunity and this beautiful island north of Australia. Nobody would answer to the millions of questions that you and all the others have. So we were highly frustrated after about three days. But then and this is kind of where we’re the turning point happened. You, you’re so desperate that you like there’s no place to look other than yourself. And this is when the magic happens, because I realized that never thought in my whole life before about concepts like leadership. What does this actually mean to you? I have studied leadership theories. I’ve studied. I’ve heard people talk about it, but I have not made my own opinion, my mind up. What does it mean for me? What is actually leadership? Does it contain? What does it consist of and so on? And this process was true for couple of concepts, and what it did is it just really empowered me. And it has also inspired my work since because it is about this, well, self clarification, self-reflection and understanding where you come from before you share your ideas, because then you can even more confidently put them forward and actually explain, Well, how did you get this idea where it’s rooted and be more open for input? Because what I’ve realized this since I was clear about my own understanding of things when others saw things differently, I didn’t take that personally. It’s just, yeah, that’s their opinion. We actually exchanged what we have in common, what you see differently, how we perceive certain concepts and how we came to these conclusions. And every you and the conversation became more enriching because I had my own foundation. And that doesn’t mean I didn’t change that or they didn’t evolve over the years, but I had I knew where it was coming from. So it’s really this self clarification that just made a difference. And also this this concept of not being not asking immediately, but before you ask actually reflects, how would I answer the question? Just kind of a tip that I always give people that reflect first how you would answer the question before you ask it, because then you actually know and you have something to talk about and are not only receiving information that might or might not feel disempowering.
Bill Sherman So I like the concept here in terms of know where you stand first before jumping into that moment of crisis, right? Because if you’re in that moment of crisis where you need to make a decision, then all of the knowledge or book learning in the worlds or insights from other people winds up being a wind that’s blowing you one way or the other. If you have no framework to make, that decision becomes very difficult.
Thomas Lahnthaler This is exactly what I’ve experienced myself having managed many crises over the years. This is really what I had also learned the hard way. I think it’s important and this is why I always get back to these decisions because this this is kind of the common denominator in crisis. And the thing is for me, it’s all about the confidence and the confidence starts with exactly what you just said. It’s this I know where it comes from. I know how I came to this, this choice that I made at the end of the day, and I know why I made it. And for me, it’s always this like in a couple of years, you still have to look back despite the outcome. So, for me, I’m not judging decisions based on their outcome. I’m actually judging decisions based on how they were made, because the outcome for me is pretty often an unknown crisis situation. So for me, there’s also a mismatch between this was a bad decision just because the outcome wasn’t this I desired didn’t make the decision necessarily about the outcome, but not the decision. And that’s that simple mindset is key because for me, that is the key to look back and say, like, ten years ago, I made that choice and it was an incredibly difficult one. And no, I made it. I stand by it. The outcome was not at all what I hoped for, but I knew why I took the decision. So I can. I can stand by it. For me, it’s always you hear often, whether it’s politicians or others saying, like, if I had known back then what I know now, I would have made a different choice. Yes, for me, that goes without saying that’s clear, but it’s not the same decision that you would have made either way. So this is that’s why I really self verification is crucial for leaders before they get into crisis situations.
Bill Sherman So you mentioned something as a mediator that I want to touch on a little bit more in moments of crisis, being able to see the world through someone else’s eyes, the other person who’s in the situation with you. We could call that empathy. You might use different terms as well. But that ability to shift perspective, I think, is a tool that is useful and incredibly useful for people who practice thought leadership because the people who practice, thought, leadership spend a lot of time developing specialty knowledge and expertise around one area. And they forget that the people that they’re working with who are just coming to this the first time. Don’t know much, if anything, about the topic. And so how do you come in a way where you understand what it is to have beginner’s mind again and approach with a bit of humility to be able to say, this is what I’ve seen, this is what I know. But I don’t know your perspective. So talk to me about that sense of empathy in the moment of crisis and decision. How do you see the world from others perspectives?
Thomas Lahnthaler You have to let go. That’s for me, that’s the first. The first thing that comes to mind because it’s letting go of. I have to fix it all. And especially if you’re in a leadership or manager role, and I keep I keep saying both because and maybe you just quickly, quickly dove into that. Crisis managers can be leaders for me, but they don’t have to. And because crisis management is simply it’s a task. Often these two are, however, in the in the communication. They’re used interchangeably and I’m very critical of this because I’ve seen crisis leaders or leaders in crisis. This is how I actually would prefer to see it pop up out of nowhere. It’s this stand up leadership. And if you as a manager, for example, let go of the responsibility that I have to fix it all, and that might be in this particular face, others who have who are more ready to lead into this unknown situation that’s coming ahead doesn’t mean I can take the decision at the end of the day, but they might be having a function that is a leader function and leadership function in this particular role. And if you let go of that ownership, you’re already letting go of things that you can take personally. That brings me back to your question. So if you for me, I accept that my perspective is just one perspective of many. This is the acceptance, the letting go of I have to know it all. I have to have the answer to every thing that what I often hear that people like, you know, I’m losing my face if I’m not having the answer is no. It’s never in my whole life experience that it was taken negatively when I said, like, you know what? I don’t know, I would like you like to hear your thoughts on this. I don’t know at all. I have my ideas, but please share. It’s also this what the way the way that I show this to two managers is just it should take something that’s very valuable to them and throw it out there and say, like, So what do you think about it? And try to not react, not justify, not explain, just simply listen to what other people have to say. And this is very difficult. But I’ve learned to practice this, and once you have let go of the emotional state and get through it and accept, Okay, this might be hurtful to hear, you’re very much more open to other inputs. And actually, while that’s a perspective, I never look at it that way. And once you have discovered how beautiful it is that you get different perspectives on your idea and how much bigger intellect with what you said before the ideas grow, how much bigger they get for them. I think you can’t get enough of this. I can’t get enough. And I know you can’t get enough either paid by all the thought leadership ideas that you put out there and the perspective that you’re keen on seeking from other people. So it’s a beautiful thing and it comes with letting go comes with accepting that your perspective is just one of many and a sense of curiosity.
Bill Sherman So if I were to pull that, that sense of letting go is for leaders the ability to recognize that there will be many decisions and many conversations that will happen that will be outside of the rooms that there aren’t. So you may have the salesperson talking to a customer about the future. And one of two things you can either script that out for them line by line or word by word, or you can prepare them just like you talked about flipping the conversation between firefighting and innovation. Right? So how do you prepare all of the people in your organization to have smart conversations appropriate to what they know and the world they see, not only internally with their colleagues, but also externally to the world beyond? Because each of us sees a piece of a puzzle, but we don’t always see the whole puzzle.
Thomas Lahnthaler I think for me, it’s about practicing this behavior first on the inside. It’s this if you want to call it an invasion or reinvention teams or whatever, whatever name you want to give it. I encourage companies to make this a habit to make to have as diverse teams and by diversity. I mean, literally diversity, not only race, gender and the more obvious aspects, but also experience, you know, old new in the organization. So how long have you actually worked in this company? So really put together different teams and make almost like innovation projects? And then these innovation projects make a couple of habits that this company, this team, should apply. One of them is exchanging perspectives. Another one is make space for emotions incredibly important because emotions are often when we talk about crisis, it’s about rationalizing it. I’ve experienced the absolute opposite. If you’re not dealing with emotions, if you’re not making space for them, they’ll come back. There’s no doubt about it, and they come back at the most inconvenient moments. I can guarantee you that, and then you’re not able to to deal with them because you don’t know where they come from. They’re more intense and all this easily controllable and so on. So you have a couple of habits, right? Also looking into other sectors for getting new ideas. It’s a very it’s a beautiful thing like you look outside your little walls and get new inspiration. So if you have these teams? Practice this for a couple of weeks. Come up with an idea. Might help the company, but it might certainly build a bit of culture. And if you do this the same way for the companies and different compositions, you might develop a culture of doing exactly that. Being able to share perspective and other perspectives, for example, and then be ready to also naturally do this to the outside because they will be promoted just like I did on the island. I experienced this and many other people who were there experienced a similar phenomenon like me that you all of a sudden shared more than you tried to convince or that you tried to discuss. It became really an experience of exchanging perspectives and building on each other. And if you have developed that habit in a company and that’s a cultural thing, then you might be able also to spread that view on your company borders.
Bill Sherman Well, and the better that you get for having those skills for teams to spot risks and opportunities, the better you are for spotting opportunities for thought leadership as well, you see around the corner. And you know what you need to do today.
Thomas Lahnthaler Absolutely, and I think one final point to add to this, it’s not always about agreeing. I think I’ve seen so many times in companies like, well, we all have to agree and we all have to see the same way. No, it’s a superpower to not see the same way because you you actually have way more diversity. You become flexible, you become adaptable. You you’re way better prepared for it, whether it’s crisis or simply moving forward, making space for thought leadership ideas because it’s about seeing things differently. It’s about trying new things, almost always agreeing on most things.
Bill Sherman And that leads to building resilience and flexibility rather than rigidity, assumptions and brittleness into the organization. And I think that’s a great place to wind up our conversation. There’s so much more we could talk about. But thank you for joining us today.
Thomas Lahnthaler Thomas, thanks a lot, Bill. It was really great to talk to you.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL Newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website orgtl.com and choose Join our newsletter. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening, and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.