Following the March 30, 1981, attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, history found the White House lacking its top two leaders, the other being Vice President George H.W. Bush. The situation necessitated that then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig direct crisis management.
Being the highest ranking official there, reporters pressed Haig for details on the unfolding situation. Haig made a statement outlining the presidential line of succession and, while noting that no official transfer of power had been made, added “…as of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President…”
Later, Haig emphasized that he was expressing nothing more than the reality of the moment, being that a leader was needed right then and he was the one.
“I was talking about the executive branch, who is running the government. That was the question asked. It was not, ‘who is in line should the president die?’” Haig later said.
In recognition of Haig’s bold statement, the Internet designated March 30 as “I am in Control Day.” Although Haig’s command lasted a short time, there’s no reason to limit the idea of taking control to one day. To properly recognize the fact that solid leadership is always needed, be it in a single moment, over the course of several days – or even plotting out a plan for success over several years, we asked women leaders to share a time they had leadership unexpectedly demanded of – or thrust upon – them.
Surviving a firefight
2015 ATHENA Award recipient Melissa Sanderson, VP of international affairs for Freeport-McMoRan Inc., had just finished lunch when circumstance called her to lead, via the sound of two bombs exploding.
The year was 2006 and Sanderson was serving as a political counselor with the U.S. Embassy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She was at a restaurant in the DRC capital Kinshasa with the second-in-command of one of the more violent groups, trying to help pave the way for the first democratic elections in 50 years.
As her position came under heavy fire, she recalls eyeballs looking to her for guidance. She projected her voice, not only directing the 35 other diners to head for the kitchen – because it was the most fortified area and had food – but she also conferred with the other politicians there on placing their seven armed guards to fend off the attack.
Nine hours later, Sanderson used a break in the fighting to take a calculated risk and make a run for her vehicle. She urged, but did not force, others to do the same, since experience told her that the break would probably last about an hour. Some took her advice, and some didn’t. Those that declined remained pinned down in the restaurant for three days.
The situation taught her not to panic in a crisis, which allows a person to help themselves and others; to think fast and provide reassuring alternatives; use available resources wisely; don’t force others to take actions; do take reasonable risks and finally, don’t forget to let your mom (and other loved ones) know that you are OK.
Saving the day for ASA
Opportunity called on Leah Fregulia back in 2007, when the founder and executive director of Arizona School for the Arts (ASA) retired unexpectedly. Fregulia, who was already a well-seasoned educator serving as the school’s principal, had limited experience in running a business.
She accepted the position as head of school and CEO that year in the face of a failing economy, decreasing funding, low-cost facilities’ leases expiring, pressure to grow the student body to meet demand and financial pressures.
“I knew that the board was investing their trust in my ability to quickly adapt and take the lead,” said Fregulia, a 2015 ATHENA Award recipient. “I was actually terrified that I would let down those who were looking to me for confidence and strength during a very tenuous point.”
Sharing leadership and providing a pathway to advancement for motivated colleagues, allowed ASA to tackle major challenges, including building stability into the institution. Fregulia’s efforts paid off. During a four-year period, the board acquired, designed and built a permanent campus; added grade levels, doubled enrollment and hired highly qualified professionals in finance, technology, facilities management and fundraising.
“My primary motivation to accept the challenge was a commitment to the faculty, students and parents and the unique institution we had worked so hard to create,” she said.
Her advice to other professionals when faced with an unexpected opportunity to lead:
“Surround yourself with those who know more than you and those who seek new learning. Invest in aspiring leaders who show initiative, flexible thinking and consistency of character in words and actions,” she added. “Ask questions, listen deeply, accept criticism with an open mind and evaluate information carefully.”
90 minutes of time, 45 minutes of material
For Nancy Padberg, vice president of client relations for BIG YAM, speaking to panel-discussion and conference audiences is commonplace. But getting called on short notice to deliver a 90-minute keynote presentation sent Padberg into overdrive researching her audience, writing her speech, practicing and booking a red-eye flight across three time zones.
“Do you know how much focus it takes to talk to the person in the back of a large ball room for 90 minutes?” Padberg said. “No…I didn’t ether. I have a new level of respect for keynote speakers.”
Padberg buzzed through her first 45 minutes of the address, but felt the audience start to slip. She devised a quick plan.
“I needed to get off the stage and into the audience. I realized I needed to reconnect,” she recalls. “And what’s more important than the keynote speaker talking? The audience talking.”
Padberg went through the audience to get them talking out loud to the group about their business challenges and how they solved them, opening up the conversation to all. She turned a keynote running out of steam into a productive town hall conversation.
“It was terrific; the energy surged and they were learning,” she said. “And that’s the No. 1 reason to be at a conference.”
Padberg’s courage to go off script and flexibility to leave the stage combined with her commitment to not let down her colleagues led her to delivering successfully a memorable keynote address.
So next time you find yourself in a tough situation, business-related or otherwise, remember to be courageous, take control, don’t panic, and most importantly….be the leader you were meant to be!
– Written by Josh Coddington, marketing and communications manager, Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. This article is part of the Chamber’s Business Buzz newsletter.