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The value of crisis leadership is something that is proven: an effective crisis leader can play a major role in ensuring that their organization responds in the most appropriate manner. In this article, Andrew MacLeod and Tim Dalby-Welsh look at what makes a good crisis leader and how to select the best option for your organization.

What makes a good leader?

There are various characteristics which, it can be argued, are fundamental to good leadership. These different characteristics can be subject to lengthy debate, but the following are widely recognised as integral to being a good leader:

  • Natural authority;
  • Integrity;
  • Moral courage;
  • Consultative;
  • Professional competence;
  • Communicator;
  • Presence / charisma;
  • Emotional intelligence.

However, leadership is personal and assessing it is based on subjective opinion.

Are other characteristics needed to make a crisis leader?

Potentially. It has been observed that the true leadership capacity of a person is tested during times of crisis, but that does not necessarily mean that leadership is different in a crisis.

A crisis is ‘an abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organization’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability’. In a crisis, an organization is not dealing with ‘business as usual’. Staff are under pressure. The situation can be unclear, and it is unlikely that there is a simple solution to the problem.

A directive approach, particularly during the initial response to a crisis, can be very effective, as decisions often need to be made in a timely manner. This does not mean that a consultative approach should be ignored. The best crisis leaders are able to integrate the thoughts of others within their organization to provide better answers to complex problems whilst maintaining the need for urgency when required.

What is needed in a crisis leader?

Determining an exact list of characteristics for the perfect crisis leader is a Sisyphean task. However, there are four basic principles that all crisis leaders should adhere to:  

Accept responsibility
There is nothing more damaging to the will and trust of the work force and delay to a coherent response if the leader is searching for someone to blame. The crisis leader must be accountable during a crisis.

Say you’re sorry
The example of Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, following the Germanwings flight 9525 crash in 2015 is illustrative. He immediately shared a sincere apology in his first appearance after the crash, repeating it time and again. In addition, he displayed deep emotion and empathy with the victims, their family and friends, and ensured all of Lufthansa’s actions demonstrated remorse.

Fix the problem
The crisis leader should make sure the immediate response has been initiated before acting as the catalyst for the wider organizational response to fix the problem in a timely manner. To do this they need to rapidly gain an understanding of the situation, and then develop a clear and unambiguous strategy so as to enable the team to visualise what they are seeking to achieve.

Provide clear direction
All members of the organization should be clear on what is required of them and why they are doing it, whilst leaving them to decide how best to achieve it. Importantly, micromanaging teams must be avoided as this undermines trust and delays action.  In a crisis, decisions will have to be made on incomplete information. Leaders must remain agile, flexible and able to respond to the unforeseen.

Ideally, a crisis leader is able to take a moment to figure out what’s going on. They will act promptly, not hurriedly. This allows them to manage expectations and demonstrate control. Throughout a crisis the leader must maintain the ability to adapt to the situation. Colin Powell observed that ‘Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.’

How to select a crisis leader

The ideal crisis leader will have positional authority, management acumen and adhere to the basic principles described above in a crisis. However, inevitably there will be variables in training, experience and temperament that impact on any potential crisis leader.

To counter this, some organizations have sought to employ a specific crisis leader who sits outside of the normal organizational hierarchy. This approach brings its own challenges. A crisis is not easy to compartmentalise. With a blurred line between crisis decisions and business as usual decisions, the two leaders could generate competing direction for staff with the potential to undermine the response to a crisis. 

Enhancing the effectiveness of the crisis leader

In many instances the crisis leader will be determined by positional hierarchy. This leads to the requirement to support the crisis leader to be as effective as possible. Getting the structural and environmental aspects right is essential. Areas such as whether the meeting room or operations room best supports decision makers; ensuring that visual aids are easily visible; and pre-determined plans being utilised are vital. If the team convenes in a well-managed location the leader can focus solely on the problem at hand and not be side tracked by poor administration.

Developing a framework for crisis decision-making can assist the crisis management process. Represented as a meeting agenda, the framework should guide the team through analysing the situation, setting a strategy, identification of issues and agreeing the actions required. The framework aides the team in focusing on the problem.

The importance of a crisis leader setting an intent when responding to a disruption should be considered essential. In its crisis meta-leadership lessons from the Boston Marathon bombings response, the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative observed that ‘An overriding objective that: forges unity of mission and connectivity of action; is compelling enough to override standard practices as needed; and obviates bureaucratic obstructions, distractions or bickering’.

Finally, one must remember that plans don’t solve problems; people do. Imaginative and suitably complex training and exercises can help to inoculate leaders and response team members to the pressures of managing a crisis. This should be supported by an open and honest lessons learnt process that identifies shortfalls and delivers effective improvements to future responses.

The authors

Andrew MacLeod MSc MBCI is a Director of Needhams 1834, a business continuity and crisis management consultancy.

Tim Dalby-Welsh, BA FInstLM AMBCI is a Senior Consultant at Needhams 1834.

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