Leading At A Time Of Crisis

At a time of crisis, the ability to lead becomes apparent. The recent global financial system meltdown is a case in point. Observing our good and poor leaders during this time informs us on how to act when facing our own moments of crisis.

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Stay calm

In a crisis, no-one wants to hear their leader panicking, be it through the actual words they use or the tone and pace of their voice. Leaders, generally, are more effective when they detach themselves from the emotions of the day-to-day ups and downs of life. This characteristic of strong leaders becomes an imperative in a crisis.

If you are struck by bouts of panic as a leader in a crisis, consider giving the leadership reins over to someone else. This is done deliberately in emergency situations, involving elements such as fire or flood, in most organisations when a designated trained person leads the operational response.

Identify and solve the pressing problem

In normal situations it is important to identify the real problem and try to solve it rather than react to symptoms. In a crisis, the element of time becomes more important. You may need to identify and solve a symptom because of its current impact before turning one’s attention to more deep seated causes.

In either case it is imperative to deal as much as possible with facts, not opinion. Check and double check what people are saying to you is a fact, not the opinion of one. If you are trying to determine what may happen in the future, seek the opinions of many. However, ensure you are seeking the opinions of those with a track record of understanding how the variables at play are likely to interact.

Seek Advice

In normal circumstances it is wise to seek advice. In a crisis, it is imperative, as unintended consequences of your actions are likely to have a more immediate impact. Seeking advice is not the same as seeking consensus. You must make the decisions alone rather than jointly. However, you must have the facts about a crisis and potential consequences of action or inaction observed from as many different frames of reference as possible.

Think strategically

Think about the big issues and the small issues tend to look after themselves so the mantra goes. This is particularly true in a crisis. It is a time for getting the right big picture rather than getting the big picture absolutely right. You need more than ever to make decisions about the right things. That is not to say, that executing detail, is not important.

Be authentic

A crisis is no time for posturing. Say what you mean and mean what you say. People who need our leadership do not need to be second guessing what our intent is. If you do not know the answer or you are taking a calculated risk, say so clearly. If a topic related to the crisis is ambiguous, say so, and talk about the process and timeline for reducing the ambiguity.

Use simple language. Obtuse language confuses people by leaving your messages open to interpretation.

Watch your body language like a hawk. A slump of the shoulders, a look of resignation when announcing a decision or the sound of trepidation in your voice will say more about your level of conviction and ability to see the crisis through than any of your words.

Act decisively

Your decisions in a crisis affect directly the confidence people have in you and, therefore, your current and future decisions. There are three elements to a decision that convey elements of confidence.

The scale of the decision has a direct impact on people’s view on direction. Small, piecemeal decisions convey a message that either the crisis is not as bad as it is portrayed or that the decision makers keep on underestimating the scale of the crisis. It is generally easier and more acceptable to unwind a decision that went a little too far than to make small decisions in the same direction.

The speed of the decision conveys urgency. In normal circumstances, it is sometimes prudent to make decisions only when they are shown to be needed. In a crisis, early decisions align resources to a common goal when they can do the most good.

Use moderate, inclusive language. Use the words YOU and WE often. Be clear about the nature of the crisis but do not use words that make people afraid. Use words that make people hopeful and determined.

Sense and reassess

A crisis is a time of ambiguity. Whilst you must convey conviction about what you know to be facts and about what you intend to do, you must always have the capacity to sense how events are unfolding and how people are reacting to them. This does not mean that you need to do this alone, but you do need to make sure someone is sensing what is happening on a micro and macro level. This may include central phone numbers for people to ring in or a website for them to post comments on for micro sensing and quantitative surveys for macro sensing.

From your sensing results you can determine whether the consequences of your actions and inactions you thought would occur are or are not occurring. From this data and any other new data you can reassess your actions. It is not often that we get things one hundred percent right. It is even less likely in a crisis. Whilst we must not appear to be vacillating, we must be pragmatic enough not to pursue failed tactics.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Tell them early, tell them often. You must keep people informed about what you know, what you don’t know, what you are doing to find out about what you must know and what your decisions are and why you made them.

You must communicate through all effective mediums for your audience using very different communication styles to ensure that the majority of people will hear the correct message. Repeat your message. Saying it once is not enough even in today’s highly connected world.

Develop a communication strategy which outlines what message will be sent through what mediums with what frequency to address what particular issue. Make someone experienced in communication with a broad range of communication media contacts responsible for executing and updating the strategy.

Learn more about Scaling Up’s methodology