In a crisis, leadership and salesmanship (or saleswomanship) are the exact same thing.

Think about it. 

What are the attributes of strong leadership in a crisis? 

The leader has a clear grasp of the nature, magnitude, and complexity of the problem. 

The leader has a plan to solve the problem. 

The leader has confidence that her plan will work.

You agree to follow the leader because she clearly grasps the problem, has a well thought out plan to solve the problem, and has confidence in her ability to execute the plan.

When does crisis leadership fail?

Let’s look at a few scenarios.

Let’s say the leader is highly confident but doesn’t seem to grasp the problem at all; that’s going to be a leadership failure.

What if the leader really grasps the problem but has no idea how to solve it? Would you follow such a leader?

Good leadership requires problem appreciation, a viable plan, and confidence in execution.

These are the exact same things required in good salesmanship.

Years ago, my furnace broke. I needed a new one.

Many salespeople stopped by to try and sell me a furnace.

I didn’t buy.

Then one day, a sales representative came by and, instead of selling me a new furnace, led me to buy a new furnace.

Before he gave me a quote, he pulled apart the heating vents in my home to see if they were sealed. (They were not.)

He crawled underneath my home to see if my heating ducts were insulated. (They were not.)

What I found intriguing was that he was the only salesperson that took the time to examine those two things.

I finally asked him, “Why are you doing this and why does it matter?”

He said, “Well, one of the decisions you’ll have to make is what kind of furnace system to put in.

“If you buy an energy-efficient furnace, it will cost more upfront but your energy bills will be lower over the next decade. So, that’s one tradeoff.

“Another is that a heating system is only as efficient as its weakest link.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a fuel-efficient furnace if all your ducts aren’t insulated and leak a lot. If 20% of the hot air is being lost before it ever gets to your bedroom, it completely defeats the purpose of buying a fuel-efficient furnace.”

I was surprised how much this person knew about the tradeoffs involved in cost-effectively heating a home. Nobody else I spoke to mentioned any of these tradeoffs. This guy did.

So I asked him, “Given what you’re seeing, what do you recommend?” (i.e., “What’s your proposed plan?”)

He said, “You will be better off buying a mid-tier furnace that costs less and spending the cost savings on sealing your ducts (to prevent leaks) and insulating them (to prevent heat loss). That combination will be the most cost- and energy-efficient configuration for your home.”

His plan made sense to me.

He seemed both confident and extremely competent in his domain.

I bought from him.

You see, leadership is really about selling an idea and convincing others to go along with it.

Here in the United States, you see salesmanship playing out as it relates to the COVID-19 response. You have multiple advisors to the President of the United States “selling” competing ideas for how to reopen the U.S. economy.

You have the President selling his idea to the American public on how to restart the economy.

You have state governors selling their own ideas on how to restart to that state’s residents.

You may see competing media outlets selling their take on how to reopen the U.S. economy.

For the greatest public health crisis in 100 years, there’s an awful lot of selling going on!

That’s because leadership and salesmanship are one and the same. If you want to learn to lead, you must learn how to sell — sell your ideas, sell people on working for you, sell your boss on approving your budget.

If selling isn’t an intuitive skill for you and isn’t in your background, you might consider my program on How to Sell Your Ideas in Everyday Life. It will be available soon. To be notified when the program is available and receive my articles about selling in everyday life, submit the form below.

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