Powerful Leadership Lessons From Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

by Jun 11, 2020Leadership

The death of George Floyd, at the hands of police, ignited a response that some may see as predictable while others are surprised – if not at the events themselves, the magnitude. Crises such as these reveal much about us but shine a particularly bright light on leaders. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields have shown us their character, courage, as well as concern.

Students of leadership can learn from Mayor Bottoms and Chief Shields as their actions stand any leader in good stead, especially in a crisis. These four principles admirably displayed by Bottoms and Shields are vital. 

First, in a crisis, know you are in one. 

Leaders who respond well in a crisis don’t rationalize away the facts. While anyone may be temporarily stunned into disbelief, great leaders push through their protective instincts which tend to obscure the truth. They avoid the traps of rationalization and denial and, importantly, are rightly suspicious of those around them who urge them to minimize the significance of unusual events, even if they aren’t yet more than a faint signal.

Brave leaders don’t easily fall into the trap of thinking that their beliefs, or wishes, are the same as data. They follow the evidence and generate hypotheses to be tested and adapted as more information is available. This frees them from delusional thinking in the moment and gives them a disciplined approach to keep learning so they can make better and faster decisions. A cowardly leader doesn’t apply discipline to themselves but is fond of pointing out deficiencies in others while being blind to their own. This is precisely why courage is inseparable from openness to learning, even when it means learning that one is misguided or just plain wrong.

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In a crisis, act like you know you are in one. 

The press conferences held by Mayor Bottoms and Chief Shields leave no doubt – they are emphatic in their assertion that this is a crisis. They stated the hard truths and didn’t gloss over it with claims of “we’ve got this.” The seriousness is conveyed in word, expression, tone, and tenor that was honest and incorporated emotion without giving way to a sense of hopelessness.

Contrast this with images of other leaders, admittedly in different circumstances, who either ignore a bad situation too long (the VW scandal of rigging test results), express personal distress instead of empathy for those impacted (Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP saying, “I just want my life back.”), or those whose lies and schemes cause devastation for others such as the messes at Enron and Bernie Madoff’s company.

Set expectations and limits. 

In a crisis, good leaders establish expectations. Mayor Bottoms and Chief Shields affirmed the constitutional right of protestors to express themselves in public. They asserted the right to gather, chant, move through the streets, and protest in any way they felt necessary, so long as the crowds were peaceful. They also set expectations for law enforcement – protect the protesters, protect property, protect themselves, and do it in a professional manner.

An effective, but often ignored role of leaders is to express what is not ok. This means telling people not to damage property, commit assault, threaten, or otherwise commit crimes. Many leaders in a crisis, ignore this powerful aspect of leadership because they think it’s obvious or won’t matter. It’s true that some are bent on violence, but most are not.

Leaders who show compassion for those who are angry while also admonishing people not to be destructive are far more effective than those who falsely dichotomize concern and toughness.

Uphold high standards, even when it’s hard.

On May 31st, Mayor Bottoms and Chief Shields spoke directly to an incident involving the use of force by police officers. They were direct and unequivocal in their decision to terminate two officers who they determined had used excessive force. They also placed on administrative leave other officers who were present at the scene. Mayor Bottoms and Chief Shields went further, apologizing directly to the young man and woman, their families, and dropping the charges against them.

While most leaders don’t face life-threatening crises at work, dangerous situations can arise at any time, and they do. The example set by the women leaders in Atlanta is worth studying no matter your business.