The Nuts and Bolts of Crisis Leadership
18 Mar 2015
With the world economy in upheaval, countries going through disasters of overwhelming complexity, headlines all over the world focus on the things that are going wrong. The numerous crises around the world, from terrorism to global financial crises, falling prices of oil, heavy losses on the stock exchanges; it is almost like the world economy has been hit by a natural disaster. The anxiety, insecurity and confusion a crisis generates are huge challenges for leaders in politics and business alike. Nothing tests a leader like a crisis. Today I would like to share with you some of the traits necessary for leadership in a crisis situation.
Let us first consider the definition of a crisis: According to the Centre for Creative Leadership, a US based leadership training institute, a crisis is a series of highly charged and dramatic events that profoundly affect the people in an organisation, country or environment. Words synonymous with a crisis in a business context are: hyperinflation, hostile takeover, industrial accident, financial catastrophe, executive scandal. A country like my homeland Zimbabwe has seen dollarisation becoming multi currencying and may yet become randisation. Everything just shifting to and fro like a drunkard.
Gene Klann, an author on crisis leadership defines Crisis Leadership as relating to how leaders handle human responses in a crisis, including their own. In handling human responses the first key consideration is Communication: Leaders should effectively communicate the state of affairs to their teams with enough inspiration to influence positive behaviour. The communication must be crafted to persuade, convince, motivate and inspire in a positive way. A leader’s deepest communication skills, character and ability are revealed in a highly charged situation.
The second trait I could simply put as Lead from the front: During periods of crisis people look for a strong leader. Have you notice how when a company is hit by a crisis its leaders often withdraw behind the protective shell of peers and lawyers. Sometimes they play the blame game, blaming the environment, their subordinates or the media. At the barest minimum a leader in a crisis must be visible, poised, courageous, committed and attentive. Leadership is not authority that leverages on title, position or regulations, the ability to influence others are an important part of leadership especially in bad circumstances.
Third trait: Leadership in a crisis calls for decisive action. Sometimes a crisis requires a leader to solve a situation by an action or decision of high character. Dr Napoleon Hill summarises it this way “An effective leader reaches a decision promptly and changes them slowly if and when they are changed” A researcher called John Ryan highlights that in a crisis a leader should expect chaos. Crises set their own timetable, and the systems we put in place to respond to them often prove insufficient. Don’t rely too heavily on the way things were done before, be flexible and adapt your strategies to play out in relevance to the chaotic situations brought about by a crisis.
Another prerequisite of leadership in a crisis is Competence: The northern leadership academy in the UK published a research paper that confirms the necessity of leaders to be competent at what he does especially in a crisis situation. According to this paper a leader should be technically capable of handling their positions. No amount of personality, political skill, wit or intelligence can disguise, or overcome a deficit in basic technical and managerial competence. It says that competent leaders instil confidence and remove doubt and fear. Thus in assembling one’s toolkit for leadership we should embrace every developmental opportunity, be it reading professional books, attending courses and executive training.
“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty” Winston Churchill. The opportunity to learn through a crisis is invaluable. An effective leader understands enough to be able to glean important lessons from the crises. According to a research published by the John F. Kennedy school of government at Harvard University a leader should be able to decipher lessons from the crisis and carefully document them for future reference and use to avoid falling into the same pitfalls of the past as indeed history tends to repeat itself. He/She must take advantage of the urgency and attention to address the underlying issues that caused the crisis in the first place.
Finally let us look at the example of former American president, Abraham Lincoln, a remarkably humble and confident man. President Lincoln spent his entire Presidency in crisis, trying to steer the U.S. through a brutal civil war. Today he’s regarded as one of America’s greatest leaders. Why? Because he was an authentic leader, a person of integrity, always true to himself, led by example and did his homework. In a crisis, the pressure to compromise your values can be immense. With employees, shareholders, and the media demanding your attention and your career, potentially hanging in the balance, there’s a temptation to discard principles. A leader should stay on top of his game, even through a blistering crisis if he upholds high standards of integrity in his work.
Effective leadership can rescue an organisation or country from chaos and deliver opportunity