Many people aspire to be leaders because it looks fun, is rewarding and conveys personal prestige. This may be true during good times, however when crisis strikes, leadership is incredibly challenging.
The way a leader operates is never more important or critical to their organisation or the people they lead than during a crisis.
Furthermore, teams need a different sort of leader when times get tough. The skills of crisis leadership are rarely taught, but are vital for every great leader to possess.
Crisis is characterised by amplified uncertainty, change, stress and distress. People often respond to these periods of crisis by shutting down and disengaging; and while conventional modes of responding to stress, detaching and withdrawing is in opposition to what an organisation requires of their leader during a crisis. The best thing a leader can do is simply help the organisation and its people get through the crisis. Getting things back to ‘normal’ should be the focus of all crisis leadership actions – it is probably not the time for visionary changes or new projects.
Becoming a competent crisis leader
Crisis leadership requires a different style of leader to emerge. The charismatic and visionary leader needs to take a back seat to the emotionally intelligent, caring and engaging one. Here are some things you can do to become a competent crisis leader:
There is no use trying to discover your crisis leadership skills in the middle of a crisis. Take the time to imagine what could happen, how you would react, and what actions and styles you would want to employ before a crisis emerges. This helps you tackle your own uncertainty and distress in order to take thoughtful and meaningful actions when they are needed.
Focus on what matters – engage, empathise and experience
Under the stress of crisis, people are highly likely to disengage. When someone has switched off they become very difficult to reach, let alone lead, Making it a priority to engage with the people you are leading by being accessible and transparent is critical.
Being empathetic means that you work to understand what other people are going through. Having empathy ensures your actions, communications and responses are genuine and don’t appear insensitive.
Recognising that everyone has a subjective experiences gives you the opportunity to understand and tailor your leadership approach to that individual or group.
Lead forward, in small steps
Crisis provokes both uncertainty and overwhelm, which often causes people to ‘freeze’ or not be open to doing anything differently. You need to lead towards resolving the crisis with certainty and clarity, but do it in small and manageable steps. Asking people to take big leaps in thinking and actions often lead to disengagement.
Sometimes the most important thing a leader can do is initiate, allow and support difficult conversations. Inviting dialogue allows issues to be bought into the open and for people to feel heard. This process enables people to express their distress and connect with their colleagues who are often suffering the same things. Paying extra attention to creating the space for these conversations, leading them, listening and appropriately responding increases cohesion, engagement and helps people recover from the stress and trauma of the crisis.
Finally, when you are leading in a crisis, it is critical to remember that you are not alone. It is important that you have a mentor or confidant you can talk to so that you can reflect on and adjust your leadership methods to maximise your effectiveness. Reach out to colleagues, peers, mentors or your coach more regularly in times of crisis. Being a leader does not mean that you are not also human; you suffer the same uncertainty, stress and distress as those you lead. Self-care is critical if you are to be available to properly lead others.
Following a crisis, it is useful for a leader to take stock of their effectiveness and be open to further developing their skills for the future.