… leading beyond crises
It’s hard enough to lead in good times. It’s even harder to lead in a crisis. The lessons that a crisis teaches leaders remains a tool for leadership transformation, building resilience, unearthing unique leadership styles that help to identify and create new sets of opportunities in adversity, and using them to foster resilience and robust growth in the organisation and economy. While crisis leadership is by no means easy, there are advantages for leaders. In a crisis situation, people rally together and leaders have the licence to make quick decisions, providing tactical clarity to direct planned activity that secures anticipated expectations.
There is no avoiding a crisis; chaos can come in all sizes and at any time. Every day, people are faced with unimaginable bad luck, disaster, breakdowns, unexplainable confusion, desperation and violence. The worst thing that can happen to any leader is to be bound between a great crisis and a promising future of hope and greatness. But all too often, a crisis and the chaos that befalls leaders bring changes in everything and affect relationships in the long run. As the leader, what if a crisis ended up on your doorstep? The number of people, plans and decisions affected by the crisis, and the intensity of the crisis, growing month by month?
As Rahm Emanuel said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste. Crises certainly make more visible the many things that are broken in our current socio-economic system and which need serious attention to fix. It is believed that leadership in the best of times is challenging, and leadership in a crisis is harder still. But leadership that is challenged and seizes opportunity – in spite of the adversity – for transformation and growth is great leadership.
Effective leaders will need to work on ensuring better care and a sustainable working environment during crisis periods. The leader who can lead to bounce back, and also foster quantum leaps forward from the abyss of a crisis, is a rare person indeed. The moment such leaders take the helm, order, promptitude, confidence and the necessary results follow, then we know that a hero leads. True leaders know how to stay focused on ‘what’s next’; so they not only pull their people through today’s crisis, but also adapt and evolve as necessary to ‘futureproof’ their business and welfare.
Indeed, dealing with difficult crisis situations is an integral part of the job for any leader; as such, all leaders ought to develop crisis management, business continuity planning or organisational resilience skills to stay effective and competent. The leader must be seen to build a resilient organisation with teams who must rally together on common goals, are open and responsive to the challenges placed before them, and work tirelessly through ambiguity and uncertainty with clear intentional efforts toward collective resilience and sustainability. The key imperative for leadership survival in a crisis is to enforce the building of great systems and policies, strengthen and reinforce team resilience – signalling to each member of the organisation the importance of incorporating practices that keep them engaged, motivated and capable of giving their all to what they do best and beyond.
Arguably, the essence of effective leadership in our previous article titled ‘Leadership in Crisis’, the balance of chaos and hope emphasised the need for leaders to inspire intelligence, discipline, vision, passion and conscience to manage crisis situations. These elements exude energy and power within the leader to excite hope and optimism that drives the team, and handle the crisis effectively through strategies and plans so as to calm down any deep-sea current effects the organisation may be confronted with.
In this article, we will address effective crisis leadership and how to lead beyond the crisis. Let’s talk leading beyond crisis for leadership in crisis situations.
What is a crisis?
A crisis is a change, either sudden or evolving, that results in an urgent problem which must be addressed immediately. For a business, a crisis is anything with the potential to cause sudden and serious damage to its employees, reputation or bottom line (Harvard Business Essentials 2004). Organisations today are trying to do more with less, further increasing employees’ workloads and stress. Rapid changes and disruptions in workplaces often put both individuals and the leadership collectively into a crisis, which must be managed. The call to crisis leadership is an invitation to balance management of the chaos and the organisation’s promising future.
A crisis state involves the breakdown of coping behaviour that may have been adequate in the past, and as such it is a departure from the ‘status quo’ of the caller. In dealing with leading beyond crisis, it is important to mention that crisis in leadership is part of leading in today’s world. The leader must build the skills, capacity and strong resilient structures in order to guide the people and organisation during this period. Admittedly, different skills may be required by the leader to take the organisation through different stages of its growth and expectations. As such, the leader needs to ensure high performance and sustainable well-being for himself, the people and the organisation.
During a crisis, effective leaders need to focus on key skills that are foundational to success through effective communication. Communicating effectively about the crisis situation helps the people feel safe and makes sense of what’s happening, while the leader focuses on sharing what information is available even when it’s incomplete.
Again, as leaders commit to positively addressing crisis situations, they commit to planning and implementing decision outcomes. They are seen to clarify how to solve the problem and define the roadmap to success. They define what needs to happen, by when, with whom, to achieve whatever outcome is desired. To lead beyond any crisis moment, effective leaders ensure they lead and manage themselves and their team for resilience so as to navigate the challenges of maintaining cohesion for any further storms in the future.
Diagnosis of a Crisis and dealing with the situation
It is for leaders and managers to sense the warning signals of a crisis and prepare the employees to face such with courage and determination. Superiors must review the performance of their subordinates from time to time to learn what they are up to. The role of leaders is not just sitting in closed cabins and shouting on subordinates for solutions. Leaders must know what is happening around them, with constant monitoring of performance to foresee crises and warn subordinates against their negative consequences. One should not ignore the alarming signals of a crisis but rather take necessary actions to prevent it.
Once a crisis is being detected, the crisis management team must immediately jump into action. Ask the employees not to panic. Devise relevant strategies to avoid an emergency situation. Sit and discuss with the related members to come out with a solution that works best in times of crisis. It is essential to make quick decisions. One needs to be alert and, most importantly, patient. Make sure your facts and figures are correct. At this point, relying on mere guesswork and assumptions is highly detrimental.
Communicating and Sharing Information
Communication plays a pivotal role in crisis management. Correct flow of information across all hierarchies is essential. Transparency must be maintained at all levels. Management must effectively communicate with employees and provide them the necessary information in times of crisis. Ignoring people does not help; instead, it makes situations worse. Leaders must take charge and ask employees to give their best. Sharing relevant information during emergency situations is essential.
During a crisis, it is expected that employees and other stakeholders think out-of-the-box and come out with something innovative to overcome the tough times. One should be ready with an alternative plan and great, innovative ideas to support the leader. Effective communication at this stage is essential to pass on ideas and information in the desired form.
Adjusting to Changes
Employees must adjust well to new situations and changes for effective functioning of organisations in the near-future. At this point, leaders ought to analyse the causes which led to a crisis at the workplace; and ensure stop-gap measures are put in place to curtail any future possible crisis situation by building incorporated processes, plans and systems.
Contemporary Leadership Crises
In the world of contemporary leadership, we are told that crises threaten us on all sides. At the most general levels are global or international crises: such as COVID-19 pandemic effects, and Russia-Ukraine war with its related impacts on the socio-political, economic and religious foundations of various nations. Crisis tendencies affect relations between the international market and economies of nation-states, while the more fundamental economic, political and cultural crises of nation-states can be spoken of as disastrous and unfortunate. Political tensions in government and the unstable financial and fiscal indiscipline of most global states are recipes for crises which demand effective leadership control and management for order to see the light of day.
To mention crisis at the global front implies a situation where time is short and an effective decision has to be taken immediately to avert ramifications on other economic variables. At this level, the crisis perpetuates a sense of lacking control throughout the economy’s fibre – worsening situations of lives and properties. It is at this crisis management level that effective leadership has to be deployed to rapidly and effectively come out with effective management plans to curtail further shocks. Managing crisis situations requires an ability to lead the economy out of unfavourable situations by initialising policies and structures, and ensuring the discipline to execute a critical plan to salvage the situation.
Leading Beyond the Crisis
During crises, leaders who have built a personal relationship and cultural foundation can focus on the immediacy of the moment. Klann, a great advocate of effective crisis leadership, advises that leaders in times of crisis ought to remember the big picture and concentrate on the greater vision for himself or herself, both personally and professionally. Leaders under critical crisis situations ought to think about where he/she will be and doing what a year from now.
Effective communicating in crises will also strengthen the organisation’s ability to thrive in our changing world. How? Be human and embrace the full range of emotions you and others are experiencing in that crisis as a leader, and be transparent about how the current challenges are impacting you as a leader, the team and the whole organisation and nation. Most importantly as a leader, demonstrating vulnerability yet with the desire to cause a change can help generate trust between you and others; especially in this crisis situation.
To effectively manage a crisis is to comprehensively have a clear leadership plan – ensuring the team and individuals are properly assigned roles and responsibilities within a coordinated and controlled effort across all levels and units of the organisation. It is equally important to update frequently, support the training requirements and periodic drill sessions of employees to align with the organisation’s change patterns and agenda.
All attempts in managing crisis situations underpin the rationale for addressing what happens before, during and after a crisis. To that effect, leaders ought to pursue the following as critical road maps to decisively deal with a crisis:
In crisis sense-making, leaders determine – even in the face of ambiguity and complexity, the likely level and impact of the threat. They get a fast and clear grasp of the situation and quickly analyse what’s going on and what needs to be done to take charge.
In crisis moments, leaders make decisions amid conflicting information, values and risks. They evaluate options while realising the importance of time lost in such situations. They make the best decisions in a limited amount of time in the given set of constraints.
When leaders recognise that the crisis cannot be managed in a linear, hierarchical fashion, they communicate succinctly and effectively about what needs to be done to resolve the crisis. They get into giving directions mode – often telling everyone what their role is, what the desired goal or accomplishment is, and the deadline by which time the job needs to get done.
Leaders at this critical juncture offer their stakeholders a coherent and credible account of what has happened. The normal channels of communication may not be operative or may be overloaded, requiring new channels and protocols that must be quickly mastered. Under this circumstance, there may be an introduction or recommendation of new systems and policy-guides to chart a new path of recovery for the organisation or economy.
Leadership in the New Reality
In any moment of crisis, when things seem to be mostly falling apart, followers turn to their leaders for a sense of reassurance and guidance on how to tackle the situation. A crisis occurs when leaders experience a serious threat to the basic structures or fundamental values and norms of a system, which under time-pressure and highly uncertain circumstances necessitates making vital decisions. Leaders in such circumstances need to make calculated decisions to improve the chances of survival – though Leadership in crises are expected to function better together with teams to avoid duplication of effort and minimise missed opportunities while promoting persistence.
The aftermath of a crisis requires leaders to focus on bridging current realities to a new future by identifying the challenges and opportunities ahead. What did the organisation learn? What adaptations are you seeing that fundamentally change the way your organisation operates? The response to these questions will require leaders to strategically reassess their organisations, identify opportunities for operational improvements and capacity building, and invest in enhancing staff skills. In effect, leaders need to redesign the way the organisation must work for the new reality.
Leadership in the new reality is often characterised by leadership turnover. This phenomenon requires that seasoned and new leaders continue to expand their skills and knowledge to be future-ready for crisis moments. This can’t happen without providing these leaders with the necessary tools and networks which support learning and change. Timely learning helps leaders navigate new challenges which include new organisational structures, strategic plans and market changes.
Moreover, leaders need to create some form of clarity for their people to refocus them on a new future beyond the crisis. Post-crisis life will be different, but the leader ought to make the people see how it will be different. Leaders need to have the confidence to lay out future plans and reset leadership focus and ability to create a future for the people, customers, partners and shareholders – especially when large elements of the future are still unknown.
The upside is that it is not too late to know our vulnerabilities as leaders. The critical decision is to plan for the worst while hoping for the best, and make sure our people are ready to respond the right way fast. If we can connect those dots, make risk reductions and quick reactions part of everyday life at our organisation, we will set the stage for resilient leadership through effective crisis management processes, systems and responses.
In summary, what do you and your organisation need to do as leaders? Reinvent or reshape? Remove or reaffirm? What’s obvious is that the post-COVID and Ukraine-Russia war context signals a new era in which leadership and culture will need to constantly evolve and respond to disruptions such as economic hardships. There is no one answer, there never will be; but leaders need to constantly re-evaluate their choices on the path to regenerating their organisations and economic freedoms.
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About the Author
The writer is CEO and Strategic Partner of AQUABEV Investment and Discovery Consulting Group. He is an Executive Director and the Lead Coach in Leadership Development and best Business Management practices for Discovery Leadership Masterclass.
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