What leaders can learn from leaked videos, drug lords, White House party crashers and FBI investigations

 Sometimes everything that can go wrong does, and you're the person in charge of fixing it.

Leading an organization when faced with unfortunate challenges — think picket lines, headlines and legal investigations — is far from easy. However, learning how to keep cool when Murphy's Law is in full effect can bring out the best in leaders and their organizations.

On Tuesday at Chicago Ideas Week, the following four leaders provided advice from their own unique experiences on how to lead under pressure.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America & Planned Parenthood Action Fund (New York).
Since joining Planned Parenthood in 2006, Ms. Richards has been a relentless advocate for women's access to healthcare. Under her leadership, the number of Planned Parenthood supporters has doubled, reaching 7 million.

However, Ms. Richards' tenure has been anything but smooth sailing. Facing anti-abortion campaigns is part of her daily routine. The organization has been under hotter fire since mid-July, when the Center for Medical Progress released secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying the videos were doctored. However, lawmakers in several states have launched investigations into the agency while Republicans in Congress attempt to sever more than $500 million in federal money to the group.

In short, Ms. Richards knows what it's like to lead an organization under immense pressure.

Ms. Richards offered the following advice.
"Set your sights on the next decade, not the next day. Don't get bogged down in every single crisis — you need to not only focus on the incoming, but moving ahead."

Despite leading Planned Parenthood through arduous times, Ms. Richards expressed optimism about the future and the next class of leaders. "This generation is so much more connected than any in the past. They are more open to the world and they're paying attention. We need to invest in them — You can't unliberate a whole generation. They have the tools to change the world, and as for me, I can't wait."

Desirée Rogers, CEO of Johnson Publishing Company (Chicago).
Ms. Rogers has a background of prestigious leadership roles, including time spent as president of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, White House Social Secretary during President Barack Obama's first term, and her current role at the head of Johnson Publishing Company. She has also had to deal with large-scale damage control efforts.

A decade ago, Peoples Gas was accused of ripping off Chicagoans through an arrangement with Enron to profit on cheap natural gas in storage previously financed by ratepayers, according to Crain's Chicago Business, leading to thousands of people having their gas shut off. She also took the brunt of the public scrutiny after Tareq and Michaele Salahi of Virginia crashed the White House's state dinner in 2009. Most recently, Ms. Rogers faced outrage for rumors Ebony magazine, the oldest African American magazine, was planning to sell its archive of roughly 5 million iconic photographs dating back to the 1940s for $40 million.

Here is Ms. Rogers' advice on leading through adversity.
Regarding her experience mitigating the Salahi state dinner crashers, Ms. Rogers said, "With a young staff, I couldn't crumble. I couldn't worry about myself or what people were saying about me. I had to lead through a difficult time with the people I'm with. I said to them, 'Guys, don't worry, it will all be resolved. Let's just do what we came here to do.' What I learned in that moment is, it's less 'What about me?' and more 'Get the job done."

Overall, it's important to address problems earlier than later. Ms. Rogers said, "One mistake people make is thinking something will go away and not getting their story out early. If the wrong facts get out there, especially on social media, it's bad. It's important to be upfront and try to get your story out as early as possible and take questions — even in the most difficult of circumstances."

Alexa Clay, author and innovation strategist.
Alexa Clay was born to anthropologists who studied people who believed they were abducted by aliens. Although she grew up and began a career in corporate strategy and sustainability, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. A childhood filled with self-proclaimed alien abductees taught Ms. Clay the importance of learning from those with radically different philosophies. She hit the ground to speak with corporate culture hackers, Somali pirates, gang leaders and even Amish camel milk entrepreneurs, to apply lessons learned from the fringe economy to mainstream business. After all, she says, $10 trillion comes from the black market and informal economies. From her research, she wrote a book called The Misfit Economy, which inspired a National Geographic series.

Ms. Clay offered leaders the following advice.
"Many of the misfits we interviewed, the reason they were successful, was they followed rabbit holes, they took themselves out of their comfort zones and really went into new cultures, into different directions that they couldn't even have imagined. In bringing those worlds together — that's where a lot of the innovation was."

Also, sometimes organizations — whether it's a gang or an esteemed institution — perform best when their backs are against the wall. "So often leadership, innovation, creativity is motivated by a context of frugality and constraint," she said.

David Petraeus, PhD, retired four-star general, chairman & partner, KKR Global Institute (New York).
As the former director of the CIA and a highly decorated general in the U.S. Army, David Petraeus is familiar with pressure. He has an extensive military career, including service as lieutenant general and first commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command Iraq — which helped build Iraqi security forces and train them to be self-sustaining — commanding general of all U.S. troops in Iraq, head of U.S. Central Command and commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. He retired from the Army in August 2011 to become director of the CIA. During his directorship, the CIA came under fire for its role in terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. That same year, an affair was discovered between Gen. Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Following an FBI investigation, Gen. Petraeus was found guilty for leaking classified information to Ms. Broadwell.

Here is the advice offered by Gen. Petraeus.
When asked what his leadership style is, Gen. Petraeus said, "If you'll tell me what leadership style is needed to create a context in which you get the most out of each of the individual direct reports... and then of the organization as a whole, I will tell you what my leadership style is."

Gen. Petraeus was once called the most competitive man on the planet by one of his aides. In response, he said, "Life is a competitive endeavor. "Let's acknowledge that and have competitions... At times you have to compete to be the best team player."

Above all, in trying times, Gen. Petraeus values preparation. "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity and you do have to be prepared. I like to think I spent a professional lifetime preparing for some of those endeavors."

His one takeaway for the audience he said is, "Do different stuff. Do out-of-your-intellectual-comfort-zone experiences. Do off the wall activities, because sometimes they're what provide the additional elements of rounding that really help you when you are in these unforeseen circumstances."

 

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