Any American of the right age can tell you with absolute clarity where they were when they learned of President Kennedy’s assassination, an event whose 50th anniversary is approaching later this month. Like Pearl Harbor before it and 9/11 after, it was a moment when time seemed to stop, when the world shifted suddenly to become an entirely different place.
It’s what psychologists call a “flashbulb memory,” the kind of recollection that we experience when a distinctive event—positive or negative—combines deep significance, surprise, and emotion.
These defining moments happen most often on a smaller scale, within communities, in families, and our professional lives. In the workplace, it may be a newsworthy event such as an episode of violence or discovery of fraud, a sale or merger or bankruptcy, an large-scale accident or natural disaster, a sudden shift in an industry or market, or the death or incapacity of a leader.
However difficult, these times bring people together as few other events can. They also give us a new perspective on our organizations and ourselves.
One comfort in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination came in seeing that the government was able to withstand such a loss and keep going. Almost before the country had a chance to begin grieving, a new president had been sworn in. Essential functions were able to continue without interruption as the pace of daily life slowed down to allow people to take in the news, work through their emotions, and consider the meaning of the change in their own lives.
Leadership in these moments and their aftermath is a challenging balance. Even as you’re dealing with your own responses, you are called to guide others through uncertain and possibly frightening new territory, ensure short-term continuity, and begin long-term planning for a new reality.
While you can’t possibly map every contingency, the best way to prepare for such times is by making sure that the basics are sound. Strong teams, open channels of communication, and an environment that fosters shared knowledge and responsibility are all important factors in everyday leadership, but when a flashbulb goes off they become critically important.
Think now about where your problems would lie if you woke up tomorrow to a new reality. Take the time to tend to those areas now and you’ll benefit whether the worst happens or not.
photo credit: fiddle oak