Helping leaders become crisis leaders

Insights from crisis response

Organisations today face endless challenges. Significant political and economic shifts, disruptive technologies, social-media driven changes in attitudes, unpredictable weather and the constant threat of terrorism and cyber-attack are just a few of the issues being grappled with.

Risks, issues and crises can emerge rapidly with little or no warning. The requirement for organisations to be ‘crisis ready’ has never been higher.

Achieving such readiness requires organisations to implement a variety of coordinated initiatives to help improve their resilience. A key part of this is learning lessons from those who have experienced crises first hand.

This on-going series of ‘insights’ has been written to help do this by using our experience to bring new insights to aspects of crisis management that are central to an effective response, and making recommendations to organisations seeking to improve their crisis capability.

In this edition, we focus on one of the most important aspects of an effective response to any crisis and that is leadership.

What is the most important component of any effective crisis response?

We are frequently asked this question by organisations seeking to improve their crisis preparedness planning.

The answer is that a multitude of factors play a role in a response to any crisis. An effective response requires robust structures and procedures which can be mobilized rapidly by well-trained and well-meaning people committed to mitigating the impacts the crisis has brought.

Ideally, the responding organisation will also have a deep well of goodwill to draw upon from stakeholders who, at best, want it to succeed. Or, at worst, don't want it to fail.

However, if there is one factor evident in the response to those crises which are deemed to have been well managed, it is effective leadership. Or, more specifically effective 'crisis leadership'. Without effective crisis leadership, the chances of an effective crisis response are significantly reduced.

So what, as part of their crisis preparedness planning, can organisations do to ensure that they have the leaders who can make the transition from leader to crisis leader?

To answer that question, it is necessary to investigate briefly what lies at the heart of successful crisis leadership.

Different but the same

It would be tempting to conclude that being an effective crisis leader requires either super-human leadership competencies or at least a very special or different set of competencies and behaviours from those which are required of leaders each and every day. But, do they?

At the heart of effective crisis leadership lies the crisis leader's ability to execute four tasks:

  1. understand as far as is pragmatically possible what's going on in their operating environment, externally and internally.
  2. identify and be able to articulate their organisation's mission.
  3. agree and communicate a set of attainable objectives or outcomes in a way that inspires others to want to work together to achieve them.
  4. assign actions or work-streams to the most appropriately qualified person and hold them to account in their delivery of them.

The most obvious observation here is that these are the tasks that are demanded of leaders all day, every day. So why do so many leaders fail to make the transition from leader to crisis leader?

What happens in a crisis is that a set of activities that are already difficult to execute, become even harder.

Ambiguity about precisely what has happened and how it has happened makes situation analysis with any precision intensely difficult. The sudden involvement of, say, emergency services, regulators or government bodies in a fast-moving situation can lead to confusion as to who is supposed to be doing what. This in turn can lead to a failure to determine any desired outcomes let alone ones which are realistic. And, without desired outcomes, specific actions are neither arrived upon nor delegated.

Moreover, crises nearly always bring the relentless and highly emotional external spotlight of traditional media and social media clamoring for a villain and swift, decisive action from the organisation involved to mitigate the impact on a victim*.

Leaders' frustration with their inability to execute these tasks to their satisfaction reveals itself to followers through ineffective behaviours such as short tempers, premature blame laying, a hunt for perfect solutions (which never present themselves in a crisis) and a battle for 'turf'. Their usually high levels of emotional intelligence give way to a version of themselves few followers may have seen before. This saps the leader's authority and makes the execution of these tasks yet harder still. A vicious circle begins to turn.

Suddenly it becomes clear to see how hard it is to make the transition from leader to crisis leader. So, what can be done about it?

*The 'victim and villain' dynamic is explored in greater detail in a previous 'Insights from crisis response' edition.

Three steps to help leaders transition from leader to crisis leader

There are three things all organisations should do:

  1. Organise the leadership in advance of a crisis.
    Complex organisations which are mature in their preparedness planning typically have tiered crisis response structures which exist to help them respond to a crisis at a tactical, operational and strategic level. Leaders for each of these teams are designated. However, too few organisations consider how their remaining leaders will organise themselves. If the leader of the strategic level crisis management team (CMT) is not the CEO, what role will the CEO take? And, what level of authority will be delegated to the leader of the CMT? What role will the chair of the Board take as well as non-executive directors? The chaos of a crisis brings multiple opportunities for leaders to bump into each other, hustle for dominance, duplicate actions or give contradictory instructions. Not all eventualities can be prepared for. But, as part of crisis preparedness planning, senior leaders should discuss how they wish to organise themselves around the responding teams.
  2. Teach techniques and methodologies to execute leadership tasks in crisis.
    Tools and techniques exist which help leaders to exercise the critical tasks that are required of them in a crisis and which are outlined above. They centre on helping the leader cut through the noise and confusion a crisis brings and help them work decisively but collaboratively with a crisis management team at each stage of the crisis. By helping leaders establish control while executing these critical tasks, they reduce their frustration and therefore the chances of ineffective behaviours emerging before it is too late. Yet, too few leaders are schooled in these techniques as part of standard crisis preparedness programmes.
  3. Give leaders an opportunity of testing their agreements and practising their skills.
    However, tools and techniques don't lead during crises. People do. That means that the discussion about how the leadership wishes to organise itself in a crisis needs to be brought to life and tested. Leaders also need to be given a chance to rehearse the techniques and methodologies they have been taught 'in anger' or as close to the conditions a crisis brings as possible. The perfect platform exists to help leaders do this: the crisis simulation exercise. Yet, in too few cases is 'leadership' given the focus it ought to have in these critical events.

Leaders should also watch and observe other leaders responding to crises with interest. Crises always bring trade-offs. So, rather than criticise what an organisation is doing in response to a crisis they should consider the trade-offs that the leaders overseeing the response are being forced to make and consider how they might have responded if faced with similar circumstances.

By taking the steps outlined above, organisations will have undoubtedly made the first essential steps towards preparing their leaders to make the transition from leader to crisis leader and therefore to significantly improving their organisation's capacity to respond to any of the many crisis scenarios they may be faced with at any moment.

Commencing crisis leadership

One of the biggest tests any leader faces in their career is the moment that he or she receives the news that a crisis affecting their organisation is underway. This is particularly true if they are the nominated leader of the CMT.

The moment anyone gives any leader 'bad news' of any sort, they scrutinise the leader's reaction in great detail. The deliverer of the information wants to understand 'how bad' the leader believes it to be (and possibly if the leader apportions blame to them). The same is true in a crisis. Only the scrutiny is materially more intense. Plus, the bearer of the news wants to know what to do next.

Nominated CMT leaders rarely 'panic'. However, it's not uncommon for them to react either by issuing a series of rapid-fire instructions or to freeze and not know quite what to do.

This reaction is not a reflection of incompetence. It's a reflection of evolution.

Housed within our brain is something called the amygdala. This bundle of nerves is often likened to an 'emergency button.' It's constantly scanning for threats. Should it detect a threat, it prepares us, in milliseconds, for fight or flight. It does this by sending adrenaline coursing through our veins readying us physically for escape or combat. The unfortunate downside of this is that our pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain which is required for rational thought and to problem solve is demoted. The net result is what has been referred to as an 'emotional hijack'* which can lead to the leader issuing ill-thought through, highly-reactionary instructions or become gripped by a sort of cognitive paralysis. The first is utterly unhelpful. The second potentially very dangerous.

So, what should leaders do when they hear about news?

  1. Nothing. Take a moment. Crisis leaders in organisations are rarely making emergency interventions which save lives. That brave task falls to others. Leaders can afford a moment to take stock.
  2. Use pre-defined questions to help understand the problem. Leaders hate lists. They think they are above them. But, having a written list of questions to ask slows the pace, demonstrates control and, critically, helps the leader accurately assess what has happened.
  3. Ensure a communication ring has been thrown around the organisation. To respond to a crisis, an organisation needs time and space. Checking that the organisation has acknowledged the crisis has happened either via social media and / or a holding statement helps secure at least some time and some space.
  4. Mobilise the response structure. Give the orders for the crisis response structure to be mobilised. How that happens ought to have been pre-agreed.
  5. Ensure leadership clarity. How the organisation's leaders organise themselves also ought to have been pre-agreed as outlined above. But, a brief call amongst leaders to ensure protocols are being followed will be time well spent.
  6. Use the ensuing time and space effectively. Having attended to the above, the leader has gained his or her own time and space to think ahead of the first meeting of the CMT. This is time and space to consider what they know so far and to remind themselves that while they are only going to be asked to do what they do all day every day. But, the challenges they will face in doing that will never have been greater.

* Goleman, D. (1996), Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. (Page 13).

Did you find this useful?