Leadership during times of crisis

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A crisis demands particular leadership qualities. Some leaders come into their own when facing a crisis (think Rudi Giuliani.) Others seem out of their depth. 

Important at any time, these five qualities and behaviours are the benchmark against which we assess our leaders in challenging times. 

1. Stand up and be seen 
During a crisis and periods of uncertainty people crave strong leadership. When we are worried, we want to know that someone with greater power is working to solve our problems. We want our leaders to be a repository for our fears. This is true in families when children look to their parents, in organisations when employees look to their managers, and in society when people look to their elected officials and government leaders. In times of turmoil we want our leaders to speak for us, to give voice to our anxieties and tell us that we can overcome the challenges we face both individually and collectively. We also want our leaders to tell us that things will get better. 

To satisfy these psychological demands, leaders have to be visible. Rudi Giuliani, the Mayor of New York at the time of 9/11 did half a dozen press conferences over the 24 hour period after the attacks. He was not just a source of information; he was a symbol for resilience and visible leadership in the face of adversity. In these challenging times organisational leaders are busier than ever, but if they remain behind closed doors, employees will assume the worst. Leaders have to remember that even if there isn’t any positive news to share, the very fact that they are visible lets their constituents know they are not being forgotten. 

2. Be calm and in control In a crisis, a leader’s first role is to contain distress. 
The most effective leaders always appear poised. Although the situation may be serious, their calm demeanour communicates they are in control. This reduces their followers’ instinct to panic. It is difficult to manage other people’s stresses and anxieties unless you have ways of managing stress and anxiety in yourself. At a time when leaders are under extreme pressure, effective leaders ensure they have ways of managing their own stress levels. Whether it is exercise, meditation, seeing an executive coach, or simply factoring in quality downtime, a leader must have strategies for managing themselves through a crisis. 

A phrase I’ve been using recently is ensuring you ‘fuel your soul,’ that is, you connect with those activities that allow you to bolster your own levels of motivation, resilience and inner strength. 

3 Be decisive 
In times of crisis the window of opportunity for making effective decisions can be very short. Incomplete information is a fact of life, and never more so than at times of economic uncertainty. We won’t have all the information or know all the possible outcomes of potential decisions, but sometimes the worst decision is not making a decision at all. 

Decisions that need to be made may not be easy ones, but they are unlikely to go away and by procrastinating, the situation usually only gets worse. In addition, during a crisis people have a higher tolerance for tough decisions, knowing that sacrifices need to be made. As Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former Chief of Staff has said ‘don’t let a good crisis go to waste.’ 

4 Show fearlessness 
Fear is the emotion that we experience at times of uncertainty. For some it manifests as nervousness or anxiousness, for others it is borderline panic. The role of the leader is not just to be visible, calm and decisive; he or she must also personify the qualities they are seeking in their followers – courage, perseverance, optimism etc. E

mployees look to their leaders for clues as to how to behave. If they see their managers panicking, they will panic. A leader’s display of courage promotes courage in others. 

5 Explain the bigger picture 
All organisations are awash with communication. In the absence of communication structures, gossip fills the vacuum. The role of the leader is not just communicating down the hierarchy, their role is to make sense of the often overwhelming amount of communication and rumour that people are bombarded with on a daily basis. 

Leaders shape the meaning of events for others in ways that help them respond more effectively. By the priorities they establish, the directives they give, the advice and counsel they offer, leaders reframe the way their people interpret events that will be most beneficial for all concerned in the long-run. To do this effectively leaders have to be able to put themselves in the shoes of their followers. All accomplished leaders say they learn more from their mistakes and from challenging times. 

These are challenging times, so as a leader, what are you learning? 

James Sweetman is a Business & Personal Coach specialising in assisting businesses and individuals realise their potential. He works both on a one-2-one basis with clients as well as delivering workshops on a range of topics including Interview Skills, Communication Skills, Presentation Skills and Motivation. 

For more information on all his services visit www.jamessweetman.com. Contact James at 087 2492774 or e-mail him at james@jamessweetman.com