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Facilitating Effective Crisis Leadership

—04 January 2018
—Tim Johnson, Partner at Deloitte North West Europe, examines crisis leadership

The highly disruptive world in which we live means that the need for organisations to be able to respond quickly and effectively to rapidly emerging risks or sudden crises has never been greater.

Most organisations recognize this and undertake wide-ranging initiatives to ensure that they are ‘crisis-ready’.  Largely gone are the days when sophisticated organisations would take part in an annual crisis exercise and thereafter declare themselves ready for anything.  

Most crisis preparedness programmes now involve regular audits; highly targeted training; rich, facilitated, desktop discussions about how the organisation might respond to various scenarios as well as methods to track progress and promote continuous improvement. And, huge efforts are made to synchronize related initiatives such as business continuity, cyber and corporate security to name but a few. Until recently these have been disparately managed workstreams yet the links between them are self-evident.

This is good news and represents a significant step forward in achieving ‘organisational resilience’.

There is, however, one area of organizational crisis preparedness that is not addressed as extensively as it should be and that is the preparation of senior leaders.

Most mature organizations now designate a small group of senior leaders as potential leaders of their ‘crisis management teams’ (‘CMTs) primarily to enable rapid mobilization. However, actually preparing organizational executives for the challenges of undertaking this role during a crisis is often something that is addressed either in passing or not at all.

This is, clearly, less positive. Many factors contribute towards helping organisations execute an effective response to a crisis should they be required to.  However, if there were one factor that is required in any crisis, irrespective of its cause, it is ‘crisis leadership’. So, why does it not receive the attention it deserves?

There is no one, simple answer and a shift towards ensuring that leaders are better prepared to transition from leader to crisis leader as a standard element of crisis preparedness initiatives will require a modification in the approach taken by those involved in crisis management planning. These include internal sponsors of crisis management initiatives such as risk managers, management consultants, business schools and executives designated as potential CMT leaders themselves.

There is though, no need to wait for this shift to happen. There are practical steps any organisation can take straight away:

  • Reassure designated crisis leaders that they do not require superhuman leadership competencies. Leading in a crisis is self-evidently more challenging than leading in ‘business as usual’. But, what makes it harder is not necessarily the need to demonstrate radically different leadership competencies from those required on a daily basis. Situation analysis, decision making, setting clear objectives and communicating clearly – to name but a few leadership competencies – are as necessary in a crisis as they are day to day. And, they are never ‘easy’ to execute. Add the disorientating impacts of a crisis and they become exponentially harder. However, the first step towards creating effective crisis leadership is to reassure those who may be asked to undertake it that they are not required to master a raft of different leadership competencies, rather they will be asked to perform the same competencies but under radically more challenging circumstances.

 

  • Provide platforms that recreate these challenging circumstances. If leaders are to become crisis leaders they must be given opportunities to practice their leadership competencies in situations which imitate the characteristics associated with a crisis and reflect on how they can rise to the challenge. Crises are events, or a series of events, which happen rarely. Their (specific) cause can be unclear for a long time. The actions that are required to bring them to a resolution are often far from obvious and the options for resolution nearly always necessitate painful tradeoffs. Yet, they are situations which (often) require leaders to make decisions quickly and under critical public scrutiny accompanied by high levels of emotion. Because leaders rarely have to execute leadership while faced with these factors, they must be given platforms to rehearse doing so. This does not just mean a crisis simulation exercise once a year. It requires a range of different interventions which are targeted at and suitable for senior leaders.

 

  • Create structures, processes and protocols which facilitate effective crisis leadership. A range of actions should be taken in advance of a crisis to help diminish the impact of the challenges outlined above which give the crisis leader the maximum possible chance of success. This includes, for example, discussing what role the CEO (who is often not the designated CMT leader), the chair and other senior leaders will undertake in the event of a crisis. There is nothing as unedifying or ineffective as a battle for authority, however well meaning, in the opening hours of a crisis. It also includes rehearsing team-working techniques around executing specific tasks such as decision making which allow the leader to marshal the talents of the whole CMT and avoid centralizing power in the face of adversity. There is, after all, no leadership without followers.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of actions. There is always more that can be done. However, it is a pragmatic list of actions that can and should be taken by any organisation which hopes to ensure that its leaders can make the transition from leader to crisis leader and in doing so be truly ‘crisis ready’. In the turbulent operating environment most organizations currently face, there should be no reason for delay. 

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