What should you do if you find yourself the leader in the midst of turmoil?
There are difficulties in life, in the home, in the workplace, yes, even in society. These difficulties stretch us, and bring out both the worst and best in each of us. In an era of social media, blogging and with the prevalence of cell phone cameras, it is quite easy to play “Monday morning quarterback” and pass judgment and heap praise on leaders whose faces and stories go “viral”. But what do you do when (not if) you come upon tumultuous times in your organization / city / etc.?
In this post I would like look at three crucial components of leading through a crisis.
The first aspect of crisis leadership is actually determined before you ever approach the turmoil. If you want to lead effectively in a crisis you must first lay a firm foundation of personal character development, strong interpersonal communications and healthy team dynamics. C.S. Lewis once said “If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding.” (Mere Christianity). The same is true about leading in a crisis. The crisis will reveal the quality of the foundation that has been laid, but the crisis did not cause the leadership to be as it is. The reality is that in this world we will face difficulties, frustrations, disappointments, turmoil and crisis. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that these times will not come. Instead, let us now prepare ourselves and our teams for the inevitable. I have often found that if I am able to actually create environments (leadership development exercises) where my team has to face a manufactured “mini-crisis” it greater prepares them for the real thing when it comes. There are numerous ways to do this, but think of it as drills, role-play, training, and/or practice for facing what will come. There are some things only learned by actually going through them, but if we can prepare our character, develop our communication skills and develop our team’s effectiveness and productivity now, the trials to come may be more manageable.
The second aspect of crisis leadership is a proper assessment of what is actually going on. In this world there are bound to be countless explanations of what is going on, what has happened and how bad it all is. The effective crisis leader will take the appropriate amount of time to ask questions, gauge the emotional climate and determine the key players and factors. Social media and yes, even news sources these days are quick to jump to conclusions. The tragic outcome of these premature “press releases” has been further chaos, war and even death. An effective leader will mobilize his or her team to find the facts and collectively suggest strategic action steps. The proper assessment of the crisis cannot be done alone, too quickly or without the proper tools. One final thing about an accurate assessment: you must be ready and willing to accept the facts as presented without dismissing things out of hand because of personal bias, personal desire or personal mental/emotional health. We all obviously look at things from our own perspective, but an effective crisis leader needs to learn how to be as objective as possible (and by the way, working with a diverse team of people can greatly accommodate this).
The third aspect of crisis leadership is balanced, principled, measured and intentional responses to the facts. Leadership that falls apart in the midst of crisis is most often emotionally charged and full of reactionary defense mechanisms. Often times the first two aspects of crisis leadership which were mentioned above will prepare you and your team and prevent falling apart here. With a prepared team and all of the facts you may be able to offer a response that is more proactive than reactive. I would encourage you as a crisis leader to do more than just “start a conversation”. This is a starting place, but not the end goal. The end goal of crisis leadership is reconciliation, open lines of communication, intentional overtures of kindness, productive collaboration and more. When you are leading through a crisis you are seeking the health, safety and well-being of all persons involved. Furthermore you are trying to restore peace (to relationships but also to circumstances), promote personal, organizational and cultural growth and bring about productive outcomes (in terms of both material and immaterial things produced). Don’t settle for clichés, cover-ups, the blame-game, scapegoats, acceptable loss or even manageable chaos. If you really want to be an effective crisis leader, seek the absolute best outcome possible for you, your team and the organization or group of people involved and affected by the turmoil. I know the best outcome isn’t always possible, but if you don’t aim for it, you most certainly will never achieve it.
Let me leave you with 5 quick principles to help guide your immediate response to crisis. These 5 things are often forgotten and ought to be your “go-to” action steps within the first crucial moments of hearing about a crisis:
- Be calm and remind everyone else to be calm. As it has often been said: “Cooler heads prevail”.
- Make a preliminary assessment of any danger or risk to people and any injuries people have sustained
- Recognize, internalize and communicate that this is not the end of the world. This is not to underestimate the seriousness of what you are facing but rather placing its severity in its proper place on the scale of “Perfect bliss ———- End of the world”.
- Address the fears of people both by acknowledging the facts of the crisis, the reality of the emotional concerns and by beginning even now to point to resolution
- Gather your team to begin helping you lead through the crisis and towards a better tomorrow
I know this is not a thorough primer on crisis leadership, but perhaps it will help you prepare for the inevitable times of turmoil that you will face. Maybe a healthy exercise for you and your team would be to write your own action plan for crisis leadership. What have you learned from the times of crisis that you have led others through?