Leadership in any setting is about influence. It isn’t a skill that you’re born with, but something that can be strengthened and developed over time. It takes practice, commitment and huge amounts of resilience. None more so than in the sphere of crisis leadership.
From observing more than 250 different types of crises occurring all over the world, five key leadership principles emerged that led to a successful resolution in these cases. It didn’t matter whether the crisis was a cyber-attack, a kidnapping, an emergency evacuation or any other similar type of peril; regardless of whether a person’s life hung in the balance or if the very viability or existence of a global organization was faced with extreme challenges and uncertainty, the key principles remain the same.
So, what enables the best leaders and high-performing teams to successfully resolve such situations? What did they specifically focus on that enabled them to overcome and achieve where others failed?
STEPPING UP: SELF LEADERSHIP AND CREATING A WINNING MINDSET
In a crisis, there is no room for ego. The most effective leaders realize this and park theirs at the door. Only once a leader is able to effectively manage their thoughts and behaviors, can they begin to influence their teams. They have great self-awareness and know all too well the importance of taking time to engage the team before any crisis actually occurs, while embedding a training and learning culture rather than one of blaming and shaming. They encourage comments, observations and advice from others but are always prepared to challenge assumptions, particularly their own.
Nor do such leaders seek to play the hero in its popular sense, despite most crises offering the opportunity to do so. The Latin root of “hero” actually translates to “protect” or “serve”. Great leadership is, therefore, servant leadership—which is not naive or weak, but comes from a place of contributing to the greater good of the mission, the team or the organization, showing empathy and compassion through meaningful action. The best leaders have a clear sense of purpose, which sustains them when the going gets tough. And it always gets tough, never more so than in a crisis.
This is why in a kidnap for ransom case, for example, the primary outcome is always the safe and timely recovery of the victim, rather than the apprehension of the offenders. This requires tremendous courage and strength to have difficult conversations or make tough decisions, often with incomplete or contradictory information, and whilst staying focused on achieving the strategic objective in the face of adversity.
GETTING A GRIP: IDENTIFYING AND LEADING YOUR TEAM
The initial response to a crisis should be decisive with the intent to bring clarity and perspective to what is usually a chaotic and unclear situation. Never is it more crucial to have what Jim Collins, author and consultant on business management, described as “the right people on the right bus sitting in the right seats” when responding to a crisis. Therefore, urgently forming a small Crisis Management Team (CMT) with clearly defined roles and responsibilities to ensure efficient and effective discussion and decision-making is key. If required, an Incident Management Team (IMT) can also be formed at the tactical level to report into the CMT.
The most pressing issue for the Chair of the CMT is to take 100% responsibility for the situation and to accept the reality of what’s being faced. At the same time, it’s remembering that being “calm is contagious” and it is essential for the leader to provide direction and then empower the team to deliver. The most effective leaders also avoid burying their heads in the sand and are always expecting the best but preparing for the worst. Nor do they avoid asking (and answering) those difficult questions that arise in such situations.
Another factor is building resilience among their teams, as depending on the crisis, the duration could be a matter of hours, days, weeks or even months. As no one can go flat out indefinitely, establishing a workable “battle rhythm” for the long haul is crucial to ensure such resilience and enable effective decision-making.
SO WHAT AND NOW WHAT? APPLYING THE STRATEGIES
Once the CMT, and potentially the IMT, are established, the key question asked is, “so what?” What does this mean for the family, team, organization, etc.? Is it merely a minor bump in the road and unlikely to disrupt the business? Or is it likely to be game over with catastrophic consequences? To assist in this, the leader has to quickly ascertain who the key stakeholders are, how they should be communicated with, and with what message throughout the crisis. Once this has been established the leader can then clearly articulate their working strategies. In a kidnap for ransom scenario, one of these strategies would be to determine how much they or the family are willing and able to pay for the release of the victim. It’s then a case of holding your nerve through the delicate negotiations while balancing the need for flexibility to improvise, adapt and overcome as the crisis develops.
CRISIS COMMUNICATION: BECOMING A PERSUASION NINJA
A well-thought-through and effectively used communications plan is fundamental to a successful resolution in any crisis situation. And this is not the same as the Marketing or PR department quickly throwing together a press release. Crisis communications is one of two fundamental components of crisis management, with the other being operational incident management. It’s possible to do the latter well, yet mess up the former, thereby exacerbating the situation even further.
In a kidnap or extortion case, effective communication is literally a matter of life and death. A wily kidnapper will explore all avenues to spread confusion, contacting as many of the victim’s family, community or company as they can in order to obtain as much money as they can. Effective leadership seeks to narrow the options for the bad guys by instilling “One Voice, One Number, One Message”. With the help of experts to coach and guide, the company or family selects a communicator who will become the single point of contact with the kidnappers. Having established rapport and listened intently, the communicator is then able to convey the clear messaging agreed by either the CMT or IMT, with the intent to influence the kidnappers. The communicator is not the decision-maker, though, thus allowing a firewall to be created, which provides necessary breathing space and thinking time.
REVIEW AND REPEAT: FUTURE-PROOFING FOR SUCCESS
No effective leader is an island, and neglecting their support crew would be to their disadvantage. What they have is a relentless pursuit of constant improvement and learning for themselves and their teams. The training never stops, as there are always new skills to learn or existing ones to refine in order to “make the boat go faster”.
In summary, effective leadership in any form of crisis requires a quick response based on clear, unambiguous strategies to achieve the desired outcome. The effective leader can then influence what should be a united, purpose-driven team to achieve this outcome, with the focus being on empowering others to become effective leaders too.
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About the Author:
Scott has spent almost 20 years helping to resolve crises all over the world, and across all industries and sectors. Built on his experiences as a former Scotland Yard Detective and Crisis Response Consultant, Scott now advises and coaches business leaders and organizations on how to improve their leadership and decision-making abilities in challenging situations.