Everyone seems to be getting stress tests these days, not just major banks.  Practically every organization is facing circumstances that will reveal underlying fundamental health.  That health comes in many different facets – financial, strategic, and operational.  In the Fast Company article I wrote during our last recession, I wrote about leadership lessons I learned during that time.

Here’s one more that I’m noticing these days as my team works with senior leadership teams facing strategic challenges: These times will reveal the mettle of your leadership team itself.

A recent email from a friend of mine brings this to light.  She is a world-class sailor who has competed on a team that has won many of the major prizes in their class.  In a recent regatta, they had a complex maneuver that went disastrously wrong in the middle of a race.  Unlike many teams (sailing or otherwise), this team didn’t implode or avoid thoughtful review after they limped into the finish line. Instead, they consulted their on-board video footage of the 15-second incident and spent two hours reviewing the maneuver in excruciating detail.  Each person got time on the hot seat, examining how his/her actions contributed to the situation and how they could perform better next time.

In most executive teams, this sort of candid review would be flat-out impossible – team members would be incapable of honest, direct review of a mistake without feeling threatened.  So too often, leadership teams just walk around the mess or spend a lot of time privately assigning blame.  For the leader, this preserves superficial peace.  But everyone knows that it erodes the ability to perform over time.

Here’s how my friend describes the difference in this championship team:

Our team debriefs are such a testimony to the power of feedback.  There is a school of thought  that ‘learning from experience’ is enough.  Be diligent in your own reflection and ‘make sure you learned the lesson’ whatever it is.

But there is SO much more to be gained if you are in a trust based – high communication environment where you can generate critical and constructive feedback. Adding the perspective of others – to put the pieces together to create a bigger picture – brings a whole new level of understanding and solution.The challenge is – that you have to have the relational trust and respect among those participating in the ‘feedback’ – or it won’t be productive. (emphasis mine)

Now before anyone thinks, “That’s fine, but it’s just a bunch of mumbo jumbo about trust.  We’re dealing with strategic issues here,” let me add my friends conclusion.

The upside of being on our team is we can pull off maneuvers which other boats can’t due to our communication, timing, and crew work.

In other words, they sail faster and win more trophies!

Today’s environment can help us to assess many things about our organizations.  The waters are stormy.  More than ever, we need to be adept in the hard skill of getting our leadership teams to ruthlessly face the facts while fostering trust and respect.