Crisis management: what makes a good leader?

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When a crisis strikes an organisation the key to managing a smooth outcome depends on the ability of leadership teams to handle it effectively. 

It seems like forever since I took in my camera film to the chemist for developing or paid for anything by cheque. A clear reminder of the impact digital has on our everyday lives. How organisations operate and how they interact with customers is almost unrecognisable from just 10 years ago.

But there is one key element of doing business however that has stayed largely the same and that is the impact of crisis and the importance of leadership to ensure resilience. 

Strong, effective leadership can spell the difference between survival and decline.

A crisis often threatens an organisation at the highest level, requiring the mobilisation of the executive leadership team to steer the business through to a positive conclusion.

In a crisis, organisations can’t use normal procedures, plans or structures to deal with it, which is why strong, effective leadership can spell the difference between survival and decline.

Increasing cyber security breaches, extreme weather and highly complex IT systems mean that more and more companies are facing a crisis on a regular basis.

With their reputation, customer relationships and the future of their employees potentially at stake, strong leadership is more important than ever. 

The fundamentals of crisis management

When a crisis happens, there are five crucial questions that must be posed:

  • What happened?
  • Why are we here?
  • How are we going to get out of it? 
  • What route are we going to take?
  • What things to we need to do to get there?

It’s widely agreed that in a crisis, any business is working with only 60% of the information they need. When facing the unknown, experiencing doubt and pressure from the media, decisions need to be made fast.

Leaders need to defuse tensions, inspire confidence, focus on what needs to be done and reassure stakeholders.

Any leader, if they wish to be a resilient leader, has to accept that the crisis has happened and that there is a huge amount of uncertainty and move forward. It’s crucial that they get a grip on the situation and stabilise things as quickly as they can. 

I know how I want to behave in a crisis - calm, authoritative and determined, showing that I am in control of the situation and can fix the problem. Leaders need to defuse tensions, inspire confidence, focus on what needs to be done and reassure stakeholders.

Leaderships needs to be able to build a team, drive consensus, and facilitate collaboration, all whilst moving at the most rapid pace. They need to communicate effectively, take decisions even without the full facts. And they need to manage the various stakeholders, making it clear to them where they can help or hinder the response by the organisation. 

The makeup of a leader

While it is impossible to predict what will happen when a crisis hits, being as prepared as possible for all eventualities will give any company the best chance of survival. That includes preparing its leadership and ensuring that it can demonstrate four key crisis skills.

1. Task-orientated skills

These can be practiced by going through different scenarios and discussions. A leader’s job will be to identify what the key issues are when a crisis takes place, separating them out from the irrelevant or routine. This will help them accept the new reality that they’re now working within and figure out what they need to do to move forward. 

This is where creative problem solving is so important.

This is where creative problem solving is so important. This might mean leaders turning to others for support, bringing in experts and people who are outside of the usual team. In turn, the leader also needs to delegate and ensure that other people are working simultaneously on different parts of the problem. Then, when people have finished working in isolation on a task, that they are brought back in. 

2. Interpersonal skills

We all naturally have different levels of emotional intelligence. The good news is that it can be developed through executive coaching, listening to feedback and thinking about how others might be feeling in a certain situation. 

At the same time, communication skills can be practiced and developed, with specific training for media situations. This includes negotiating and influencing, getting people to contribute and to do, think and act in certain ways. 

One of the most important attributes that some leaders find more difficult is the ability to adapt and be flexible. It is important that they can change their mind and the direction that they’re taking on the emergence of new facts. It can be fatal to carry on regardless.

3. Confidence

Practice improves confidence and in turn helps to develop presence. This is especially vital when on deadline with the media. Leaders need to be credible and pragmatic, responding humanely in crisis situations. 

4. Management of stakeholders

Mapping out stakeholders and identifying a clear overview of importance vs power/influence is crucial. There are people within an organisation who will be largely forgotten in a crisis, for example staff in another office in a different country. 

Whilst perhaps not at the top of the list of stakeholders who need to be involved when a crisis strikes, they will still be affected so a good leader will ensure that they aren’t left wondering what’s going on. Engaging management teams within the organisation who are the stakeholders looking inwards and downwards will be key to making sure no one is forgotten. 

Mapping out stakeholders and identifying a clear overview of importance vs power/influence is crucial.

A crisis is a hugely impactful and difficult time for any company. By getting your leadership right, however, means that the company is far more likely to be able to take advantage of the crisis to learn, adapt and improve.

About Chris Butler

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