Strategies for Leading in a Crisis

Posted: February 15, 2009 in Leadership
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What can you, as a leader, do to help your group or organization cope with the stress and anxiety of crisis? Here are some principles and techniques that you can use to become a more effective crisis leader.

  • Take charge of the situation: This may sound simple, but during a crisis it is one of the most difficult things for a leader to do. Just think of a medical emergency. The critical first step is to take charge of the situation, whether you know anything about first aid or not. People tend to react favorably to direction and decisive leadership in such a situation. Shrinking back from responsibility will only undermine your authority and will lead to a downgrading of respect for you once the crisis has passed. It will also create an opportunity for inaction.
  • Recognize what is happeningAdmit up front to the gravity of the situation. Don’t look to assign blame as it will only create conflict and undermine cohesion and morale. Also, a forensic search for causes is only relevant to the extent that it can contribute to solving the immediate problem. The clearest example of this principle was when James E. Burke, then CEO of Johnson & Johnson, recognized up front that the Tylenol poisoning scandal of 1982 was a potential nightmare for the company. His willingness to confront difficulties immediately contributed to resolving the crisis humanely and effectively.
  • Confirm information before reacting: As a military officer taking over command of a highly disputed area in Bosnia, my predecessor gave me advice which stood me in good stead for the duration of my deployment: “First information is always wrong”; and, “Don’t overreact.” The first step is to identify the source or provenance of the information. The second is to ascertain its reliability. The third is to confirm it through observation or trusted report. While this is going on, find a way to plan ahead by considering your options. Involving your team in these steps will go a long way to alleviating the anxiety which results from uncertainty and mobilize their minds and hands. Busy people have much less energy to fret and start rumors.
  • Plan ahead: The ability to plan ahead is critical in any situation, but all the more so in a crisis or emergency. Before an emergency or crisis, it is important for a leader to mobilize his or her team to consider possible unfavorable or unforeseen scenarios. When a crisis hits, it may not be exactly as envisaged, but chances are that the time and effort spent in considering potential actions will save time and radically increase performance under stress. During the crisis, stay on top of the situation by developing various contingency plans and considering a variety of options before acting. Bringing subordinates into the decision-making process can be a valuable strategy, so long as the individuals have requisite know-how or information and that time is not an overriding factor.
  • Care for yourself and for your subordinates: Caring for oneself as a leader is not selfish. Even in the worst of situations, a leader should wash and change clothes regularly. Regular meals and minimal daily rest are also critical as they provide the fuel to function effectively. Try going 24 hours without sleep and see how your decision-making and judgment are hindered. Extending the same consideration to subordinates and people under your care will go a long way to building their self-esteem and self-efficacy. It will also solidify your reputation as a caring and considerate leader. People willingly make sacrifices for leaders and organizations that treat them with respect and humanity in difficult times.
  • Effective teamwork depends on morale and cohesion: There is strength in numbers during a crisis or emergency. Teamwork, cohesion and morale contribute directly to individual and group effectiveness during a crisis. They are also known to reduce follower stress and anxiety. The best means of building and maintaining these factors is to create a compelling mission. This provides a rallying point for all the efforts and sets a challenge to the more action oriented members of the group. Caring for followers and others under the care of the group also creates a focus for improvement and contributes directly to morale and group effectiveness.

These are the most important principles that can be readily applied by any leader in a crisis situation. They contribute directly to reducing follower stress and conflict by focusing everyone on the task at hand rather than personal problems, fears, and anxiety. They also contribute indirectly by generating greater teamwork, cohesion and morale. The next time you are confronted by an emergency situation or a crisis, begin to apply these principles immediately. Even better, apply them now in normal circumstances to become a more transformational and charismatic leader and to better prepare your team or organization for the inevitable rough spots ahead.

© Richard Martin 2009

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