Leading During a Crisis
With all eyes on Theresa May during Brexit, it’s obvious that being in charge isn’t easy! When everyone is looking to you for solutions and/or reassurance, it’s easy to feel the stress of leadership. Sometimes, there are no simple answers to problems. In fact, leading during a crisis is probably one of the most stressful working situations you can face. So, when everyone around you is losing their heads, how do you remain calm and make sure you’re making the right decisions?
Ultimately, successful leadership during times of crisis is all about how you deal with your mistakes and those made by your organisation. It happens to every company at some point, from smaller problems to huge catastrophes with global consequences – think of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
When difficulties occur, stress can make the fight or flight response take over. This creates the inclination to either defend mistakes strongly or bury your head in the sand and wait for the storm to blow over (tip: it won’t work!). At the end of the day, a crisis is usually a temporary situation that you need to push through. As Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
In this first article in our series on challenges in leadership, we’ll look at the best ways of leading during a crisis and how you can implement them.
Your Crisis Plan
Many examples of bad leadership during a crisis point to the lack of planning involved. According to James F Haggerty, specialist in this area and author of the book ‘Chief Crisis Officer: Structure and Leadership for Effective Communications Response’, with regard to BP’s management of the Deep Water Horizon disaster, “The fault, as I see it, lies not in the weak, fumbling messages that BP put out in the initial phases…but rather the lack of an adequate, executable plan that led directly to those fumbled responses.”
Inevitably, crises occur. It’s vital that you carry out a risk assessment of your business activities. Identify any problems that could occur and make a plan to deal with each incidence. When a crisis strikes, it’s important to respond swiftly. This doesn’t leave much time for meeting with trusted colleagues and formulating responses and counteractions. That’s why this part of your crisis leadership plan is the most important.
Particularly in this age of social media, bad news travels lightning fast. Whether it’s a major disaster or simply a dissatisfied customer ranting on Facebook, it’s important to respond quickly and effectively to limit reputation risk. According to recent surveys, reputation risk is among many executives’ top worries. That’s no surprise as the ongoing damage caused by this kind of negative PR can far outweigh that caused by many transient business crisis situations.
With this in mind, as soon as negative news breaks, respond. But do consider your response carefully. Call your team around you, use your crisis leadership plan and decide on the best reaction. Openness is usually the best policy, if possible. Acknowledge if you’ve made a mistake but be careful with liability issues. Take legal advice if you’re unsure.
Keep Your Emotions Under Control
It’s natural to feel emotionally unsettled if you are the one leading during a crisis situation. You may feel huge mental, psychological and physical pressures. Becoming visibly agitated, angry or aggressive with those around you is counterproductive. If colleagues and subordinates witness emotional outbursts, it may cause them to lose faith in your abilities or feel that you are losing control of the situation. When this happens, they feel less able to respond effectively themselves.
Emotions also cause you to react strongly, possibly without considering your options. Remember the video footage of President George W Bush as the 9/11 attack unfolded. An aide whispered the news into his ear as he was sitting with Florida school children. Despite the devastating news, he continued what he was doing and didn’t visibly react. By not reacting immediately, Bush gave himself some time and space to think.
Remember, you are in control and people are looking to you for an example. Remain calm and outwardly positive at all times. Brainstorm with colleagues and take time to consider every possible course of action.
Don’t panic. Panic and fear are notoriously infectious. If those you work with sense your trepidation, they are likely to feel it themselves. Remaining calm and positive rubs off on those around you. Be fearless in the face of challenge and criticism. Remember, this isn’t personal. Taking the situation personally is likely to impair your judgement and self-confidence.
It’s relatively easy to lead during problem-free times. It’s when you’re leading during a crisis that you’re really tested. Historically, these hard times are what separates the mediocre leaders from the truly great – which will you be remembered as?
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