Leadership in a crisis…

A crisis tests organisations…and true leaders

Markets growing steadily, systems turning smoothly, profits churning in nicely. You get the odd thing come up that, luckily, you have time to dwell upon or kick to committee but, generally, running organisations in good times can be relatively straight-forward. Then, crisis hits and those problems you thought were big, suddenly dissipate into insignificance as the safety of your people and survival of your organisation is threatened.

This is the situation that many leaders face right now during the COVID-19 outbreak. For many, they will not have faced such a potential existential threat before. There may not be a reservoir of organisational memory for them to lean on. In the 2008 banking crisis, the treasury and finance departments of many nations had to dust off the texts from the Victorian era to learn what to do when banks collapse. You may not have that luxury. This tests your organisation hard and, as a leader, tests you personally even more; this is where you earn your corn.

Leadership doesn’t always correlate to hierarchy

Unfortunately, hierarchy doesn’t necessarily correlate with great leadership. Too often promotion up a hierarchy is not based upon leadership quality but via technical merit or, worse, political game-playing, nepotism or privilege. A crisis exposes these flaws in plain sight. An unfortunate historical fact is that poor battlefield leaders often met their fate at the hands of the very troops they were supposed to lead.

Poor leadership is dangerous for all and people instinctively know what good looks like and, sadly, what it doesn’t. In a crisis, authentic leadership has a gravitational pull.  The vain, fake and reliance upon rank, is swiftly exposed.

Protect and survive first…

Harvard Law Gets it Right on Director Liability in a Crisis

Crisis forces you to focus and prioritise fast. Firstly, your people; swift action to ensure safety is paramount. Next, focus on key tasks & prioritise them. What’s essential versus what’s simply desirable? The swift understanding of this is critical. Focus on the core activities that really matter. This may mean getting people to redeploy to run the critical tasks. It almost certainly means a fundamental shift in how the organisation works. Swift decision-making is critical, but communication is the key to make it stick.

Communication is key in a crisis

History provides lessons for us to draw upon; the famous “fireside chats” from America’s F.D.Roosevelt provide some key lessons for modern leaders in a crisis.

Leading throughout the Great Depression and most of the second world war, the radio broadcasts offered a calm but clear authority. The tone was empathic, down-to-earth and understanding. He didn’t sugar-coat the truth or the perils and problems but gave a clear direction. Difficult decisions weren’t hidden. Messaging was simple and easy to understand, no corporate jargon here. He appealed to what was best in the people to give themselves hope. It felt like he was talking to you as a person, not the whole nation.

Here was classic leadership in a crisis. Modern business leaders could do worse than take the lessons from Roosevelt. Here are my top four:-

  1. Tell the truth calmly & clearly. Be transparent and remove any rose-tinted spectacles. Failure to do so swiftly erodes trust.
  2. Demonstrate empathy – the quieter you are, the more you hear.
  3. Make it personal – now is probably not the time for set piece “town-hall” addresses.
  4. Show you have a plan but don’t over-promise.  Promising what you don’t know or cannot deliver destroys leadership.

The Vocabulary of the Persuasive Leader | ultra106.5fm

If you are curious to learn more on how to lead teams through these stormy times, take a look at our website to find out more about how we can support you and your team when you may need it the most.

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Gareth Moxom

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