Key Thoughts for Crisis Leadership

We are continuously faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguished as insoluble problems– Lee Lalocca

 

 

UNDERSTANDING CRISIS

Conflict, and its subset crisis, is an indelible part of the human condition, and necessary for change and growth. It applies to all systems universally, whether personal, social, organizational, or national. Because we live in a more complex, interconnected, and interdependent world, crisis is more prevalent than ever before.  For this reason, it is critical that we understand why crisis represents both danger and opportunity.

People wrongly believe that crisis is a random, cataclysmic event that can strike without warning.  Although “acts of God” sometimes happen, more than likely crisis occurs when an organization’s values, beliefs, culture, or behaviors become misaligned with its operating environment.  Until they are realigned, crisis will continue … perhaps indefinitely

Unexpectedly, almost every crisis is preceded by signals and tremors.  Leaders who are listening or are “in-tune” with them may mitigate or avert crises. During the preparation phase, adaptation or change is difficult if not impossible because organizations prefer equilibrium and the status quo.  Leaders struggle to get their organizations to accept change because of the loss and pain that accompanies it.

During the emergency phase, leaders have a “small window of opportunity” to decrease the organization’s level of disequilibrium in order to mitigate the threat. This is accomplished by decisive leadership, understanding the organization’s core purpose, empathetic communication, and other “technical remedies.”

The adaptive phase begins when the threat has been stabilized.  At this point, leaders must focus the urgency and attention on the underlying causes of the crisis. If the organization returns to its original equilibrium (status quo), the leader will be unable to solve underlying issues and crisis is likely to return.

 

STRATEGIES FOR LEADING THROUGH CRISIS

The relationship between strategies for leading through crisis and Crisis Life-Cycle Model.

1.   LEAD FROM THE FRONT

During periods of crisis, people defer to a strong leader who is visible, poised, courageous, committed, and attentive. Organizations under crisis want leaders who provide assurance, direction, and inspiration. Leaders must be careful not to get so caught up in the action that they lose their perspective and wisdom; this may be referred to as “leaving the dance floor to get on the balcony.”

2.   FOCUS ON THE CORE PURPOSE

People who understand their core purpose can weather any storm. Successful leaders understand their organization’s core purpose.  Organization’s that succeed during crisis rely on their values, based upon their core purpose, as the foundation for every action and decision. Leaders must ensure their organization’s values, beliefs, and actions remain aligned with its core purpose and environmental reality.  Once misaligned, a leader’s primary job is to realign them.  This adaptation may be extremely difficult, often causing organizational disequilibrium, loss, and pain. Leaders must communicate their vision, grounded in the organization’s core purpose, to help reduce anxiety and ensure long-term organizational stability and security.

3.   BUILD THE TEAM

No leader is smart enough to single handedly solve all the challenges an organization encounters when in crisis.  He must build teams inside, across, and outside his organization. Personal relationships are the building blocks of all teams.  A leader must continuously nurture his personal relationships to develop a shared identity or bond with every team member.  It is this bond that keeps a team member engaged and committed when faced with danger or the impulse to flee.

A leader should also promote trust and understanding and foster an open and forgiving environment. He must provide feedback to his people. Leaders must not forget the “external” stakeholders to the organization.  If they feel a sense of connectedness and shared identity, they will be willing to support and sacrifice on behalf of the team.

4.   CONDUCT CONTINUOUS PLANNING

To deal with the ever present crisis potential, leaders must conduct contingency planning, making as many decisions before the crisis as possible. Continuous planning begins by identifying the major categories of risk and prioritizing them with their probability of occurrence.

Every crisis sends out a trail of early warning signals.  A leader must ensure that the organization is “tuned-in” to these signals. Leaders must ensure their organizations have a detailed crisis action plan which identifies the members, facilities, and actions to be conducted during a crisis.  The leader must then test the plan under realistic and demanding conditions.

5.   MITIGATE THE THREAT

When a crisis presents itself, leaders must take decisive action to facilitate damage control and move the crisis out of danger.  People will feel that the danger is retreating when they see the leader is paying attention.

People want to see their leaders during a crisis.  The leader must be physically on the scene as soon as possible.  It gives him the opportunity to embrace his central leadership role, capture the initiative, seize power and take control. During a crisis, a leader should consult with experts and focus on fresh, critical thought; but be constantly vigilant that conventional wisdom may be what allowed the crisis to unfold.

6.   TELL THE STORY

If a leader can communicate effectively, he can help frame, if not control, the story. Failing to communicate quickly may result in negative and unanticipated long-term consequences. Rapid, honest, and transparent communication often limits long-term media scrutiny. The correct spokesperson is critical to communication effectiveness.  The spokesperson must display poise and discipline.  Whenever possible, it should be a identifiable leader, usually the CEO. The leader’s message must reduce fear and contain empathy for the victims.  The message should remain grounded in the organization’s core purpose and values.

7.   PROFIT FROM THE CRISIS

As soon as the danger is averted, the leader must declare the crisis over.  The longer a crisis drags on, the more likely people will associate trouble and conflict with the organization. Leaders should ensure that lessons from the crisis are documented and resolutions are implemented. Finally, leaders should avoid the temptation to return the organization to the status-quo.  He must take advantage of the urgency and attention to address the underlying issues that caused the crisis in the first place.

(This paper is from Harvard university and John f. Kennedy School of Government, April 2005)

 

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