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Leadership in Crisis

Gordon Meriwether

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"There was an unmistakable crack of a firearm...then another and another. Screams echoed throughout the store. Customers and employees seeking cover and darting for the exits. He's got a gun!!! one hollers, followed by more screams and shots..."

Unfortunately, this scene is playing out in more and more businesses, government agencies, and in public spaces around the country. With economic turmoil shattering lives, we can only expect these crises to grow and pose an ever-increasing challenge for leaders.

The chaos of the times seems to present a new disaster every week, plunging leaders who may be top-notch performers under normal operations into a world of chaos and expectations — situations they are both unequipped to handle and also prone to make well-meaning yet disastrous decisions in the heat of the moment.

Leadership in a crisis situation is very different from leadership in a time of normal conditions. On the surface, the Five Practices may not seem to apply to a world turned upside down. But based on my teaching experience, all leaders in government and industry would find the tools useful and provide the foundation for responding to and recovering from any crisis.

The organizational operating models that provide the baseline for a smooth-running enterprise during normal times evaporate during a crisis, throwing the leadership into a morass of uncertainty and chaos. But the chaos can be managed successfully if its impacts are understood.

  1. Tension and stress: In any crisis, leaders are thrust into a stressful and tense environment that puts them under enormous psychological, mental, and physical strain. Even the most minor decision made under these circumstances can result in catastrophic impacts.
  2. Speed: Everything may initially happen at warp speed, giving little time for thoughtful consideration or consultation. In a crisis, worlds collide and time is the first victim.
  3. Personnel: The right people may not be available to respond to the crisis, resulting in untrained and inexperienced leaders being called upon to step into the chaos. Without the right people the organization will stumble in normal times, but during a crisis the problems are accentuated exponentially.
  4. Organization: Businesses and governments are not necessarily organized to handle crisis. In fact, the organizational hierarchy may be a hindrance to response and recovery. The flexibility to adapt the organization to the situation is critical to success.
  5. Stakeholders: The list of stakeholders will rapidly expand, bringing in to play new channels of communication, new expectations, and new players--all simultaneously. Suppliers, regulators, families, customers, hospitals, law enforcement will all require a leaders time and interaction.
  6. Communication: The normal channels of communication may not be operative or may be overloaded, requiring new channels and protocols that must be quickly mastered.
  7. Media: The leader in crisis has the media spotlight suddenly amplified, all waiting to report and find fault.
  8. Simplicity: Simplicity is the key in a crisis. Simplicity ultimately wins. The more complex a leader makes a solution in a crisis the less likely success will be the end result.

Understanding the impact a crisis has on the leader is critical to stepping up to the podium as an instructor or facilitator. In teaching crisis leadership in over 100 seminars and workshops, the following lessons can help you prepare:

  1. Experiential: Provide your audience with an example of a crisis that is as real as possible, addressing as many of the above impacts as appropriate. For example, text prepared messages to your audience during the workshop; use relevant, practical organization applications that the audience can identify with, have a roving reporter stress the audience with uncomfortable questions and inquisitions. I have even hit plastic golf balls into the audience to add a little tension and stress to the workshop. Make the environment of the session as real as possible. If you are not going to make it real, they can read a book and not get the leadership crisis experience.
  2. Do your homework: Each organization has different stress points and leadership expectations. What creates a crisis in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is very different from a large multinational conglomerate. Teaching leadership in crisis without understanding the organization will certainly undermine the effectiveness of the workshop.
  3. Audio Visuals: Use as many audio visual tools as practical. They not only educate and entertain, but also can be used to control an audience. There are any number of products available on the internet. I have never had a problem finding the right clip to demonstrate a point.
  4. Case studies: Actual events that make the point and are relevant to the organization in training are invaluable. In workshops for the food safety community, for example, I draw upon cases from various incidents in food contamination; for public utilities, ice storms and hurricanes; for major corporations, commodity futures exposure.

Applying the lessons of The Leadership Challenge to a crisis becomes a matter of common sense. As a brief demonstration of the application of the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® to crisis leadership, I offer the following:

Model the Way: In my experience as a leader in business and the military, the quickest way to lose your leadership credentials is to not demonstrate balance in a crisis. Instead of calmly addressing a crisis at hand, the inept crisis leader will lose control of his/her actions, temper, emotions, or awareness. In the Navy we call it "losing the bubble"; not being aware of the tactical situation at sea can cost lives. Demonstrate balanced leadership.

Inspire a Shared Vision: It is critical in a crisis that we all share the same goal. We may have different reasons for the goal but we have the goal in common. For example, the obvious goal is to return to normalcy. To employees this means ensuring that their job survives, while an executive worries about stopping the revenue loss. Return to normalcy.

Challenge the Process: The organizational processes are stressed in any crisis and may become dysfunctional. A leader in crisis must have the flexibility to adapt to the situation, regardless of the inherent processes of the organization. Flexibility to adapt.

Enable Others to Act: In a crisis, much more than in normal operations, effective partnerships are critical to the success. Simply put, partnerships save lives.

Encourage the Heart: Taking care of the response staff is not much different in a crisis as in normal operating situations. What is different is the stress the team is under and how fast this can change. A leader in crisis needs to be more aware of the physical, psychological, and mental condition of the team. An operative that has been controlling an evacuation for 12 hours straight may need time out to regroup. The leader must be aware and respond.

It is critical for a leader to be aware as the environment becomes dysfunctional or begins to stabilize. Although the general rules for leading in a crisis are different, they are not outside the parameters of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. Today, our world is routinely in crisis mode. And even though one leadership style does not fit all, when it comes to dealing with a crisis situation, we are fortunate to have a guide like The Leadership Challenge to serve as the foundation of organizational crisis response and recovery.

Gordon Meriwether, a retired Navy Captain, is the Founder of The Uriah Group, a crisis leadership consultancy. He can be reached at gmeriwether@uriahgroup.com.

NOTE: We are currently investigating the viability of Leadership Challenge materials geared specifically for crisis situations and crisis-response professions. Please contact Assistant Editor Marisa Kelley (mkelley@wiley.com) if you would like to share your thoughts regarding your interest in such materials and how you would use these.

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