Leaders must step up during a crisis
Too often leaders are paralyzed during the crucial beginning stages of crises. When things start to heat up it’s important to keep control, or things can quickly get out of hand. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, leadership expert John Baldoni gave his advice for those tasked with steering their organization through troubled waters:
Take a moment to figure out what’s going on. An executive I know experienced a major disruption in service to his company. He was the person in charge and he told me that at the first response meeting everyone started talking at once. The chatter was nervous response — not constructive — so he delegated responsibilities and then called for a subsequent meeting in an hour’s time. This also helped to impose order on a chaotic situation.
Act promptly, not hurriedly. A leader must provide direction and respond to the situation in a timely fashion. But acting hurriedly only makes people nervous. You can act with deliberateness as well as speed. Or as legendary coach John Wooden advised, “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
Manage expectations. When trouble strikes, people want it to be over right now — but seldom is this kind of quick resolution possible. It falls to the leader in charge to address the size and scope of the crisis. You don’t want to alarm people, yet do not be afraid to speak to the magnitude of the situation. Winston Churchill was a master at summing up challenges but offering a response at the same time. As he famously said when taking office in 1940, “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
Demonstrate control. When things are happening quickly, no one may have control, but a leader can assume control. That is, you do not control the disaster — be it man-made or natural — but you can control the response. A leader puts himself into the action and brings the people and resources to bear. Think of Red Adair, who made a name for himself putting out oil fires that no one else could. A raging blaze may seem uncontrollable but Adair knew could control the way it was extinguished.
Keep loose. Not only does this apply to personal demeanor — a leader can never afford to lose composure — it applies to the leader’s ability to adapt rapidly. A hallmark of a crisis is its ability to change quickly; your first response may not be your final response. In these situations, a leader cannot be wedded to a single strategy. She must continue to take in new information, listen carefully and consult with the frontline experts who know what’s happening.
As you can see, successful crisis leadership is as much about behavior as it is actual business actions. If the person in charge is calm and controlled, that feeling trickles down through the ranks, boosting confidence and productivity. Combine that with solid planning and execution and you have a crisis management machine ready to roll.
For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management