Crisis Leadership — The Right Stuff Anytime

The traumatic days after September 11 brought the qualities of leadership in crisis situations into sharp focus. And as we watched the unfolding agony since that day, we saw the emergence of the real leaders, nationally, corporately and individually.

The 11 attributes described here, many of them drawn from the actions of many of these leaders, are a template for leadership behavior at all times, but most particularly in crisis situations.

Crisis Leadership

  1. Be Calm and Controlled. Before they are able to effectively accomplish anything, leaders in a crisis situation have to be calm and collected, despite the chaos around them.  Acting with outward calmness and emotional self-control establishes a platform of credibility from which they are actually able to lead. Leaders who are perceived to lose control at any stage in the developing crisis forfeit the one thing they most need to lead: the confidence of the followers.
  2. Look After People. First, foremost and before any other task, leaders in crisis must make it their priority to care for the people for whom they are responsible.  New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani went straight to the World Trade Center after the first aircraft hit and started helping the dazed and the injured. And ever since those terrible first minutes, he has epitomized leadership in crisis by exemplifying all the attributes described here.
    Many leaders of companies who lost people in the tragedies have been tireless in their efforts to console individual families, to provide professional grief counseling, to counsel and mentor their people, to reassure all their employees and to set up funds to support bereaved families. And the best corporate leaders everywhere have understood the importance of allowing everyone time to remember, time to recover and time to communicate with others. Leadership IS all about people; and whether it’s a crisis or not, the best leaders are ALWAYS focused on people.
  3. Communicate Like Crazy. Leaders in crisis master every form of communication. They listen to what people are saying, they meet with as many groups and individuals as they can, they watch the chain of actions and reactions around them, they visit company locations in person or by videoconference. They tell people what has happened, what they expect to happen next, what the ‘big picture’ plans are and how people might be affected.
    Even when there is not much good news, effective leaders know that it is far better to tell their people what they do know rather than to allow widespread fear and rumors to run unchecked. This becomes even more important than ever in our internet- and email-driven world where information, much of it biased, untrue or unfounded, spreads like wildfire and gets accepted as truth simply because people believe what they read.Effective leaders neutralize the rumor-mill and manage the information agenda by continuous, factual communications.
  4. Set Priorities. It is vital that the leader set and communicate priorities very early on, so that people have a clear sense of purpose and understanding of what they are expected to do, even when they are dazed and numb with shock.  Many of the well-publicized examples of spontaneous, effective action by CEOs in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 tragedies illustrate the value in setting and acting on priorities very quickly. A leader needs to decide from the very start what the most valuable activities are for himself and his people and then implement them energetically.
  5. Provide Hope. Napoleon called leaders “dealers in hope” and, more than ever, that’s what they have to be particularly when they are surrounded by despair.  It is the role of the leader to create hope, to renew the vision, to be the optimist, to help people see beyond the present distress and to get them moving again towards a common goal — whatever it may be at that time.
  6. Reassure Customers. While a leader is providing purpose and direction for his people, he must also reassure nervous customers many of whom, while they sympathize with the company’s people issues, are much more concerned with their own interests.  Customers are the heart of every business — without them there is no business. The crisis leader will stop at nothing to provide customers with the assurance they need.
  7. Be Visible. It is critically important for the leader to be visible and “in the thick of things”, particularly at a time of crisis.  More than ever, people need to see and hear the leader early and often throughout the crisis.  (Good leaders already know that being seen and being accessible is an ongoing priority under all circumstances, but it is an imperative in times of crisis.) The leader’s presence alone provides morale-boosting confidence at a time when it is most needed.
  8. Get Back to Business. Getting people back to work as soon as possible is another priority for the leader.  Resuming everyday business re-establishes a routine, a pattern of behavior where people can start to feel productive again, and where their focus on work related activities can ease the burden of the crisis. But, as George Colony of Forrester Research wrote to his employees, “Many people will want to go back to ‘normal.’ But we can’t go back….. We will go to a ‘new normal’ but we can’t go back to the ‘old normal’ — it’s gone forever.”
    Establishing new ways of doing things may be difficult but it is essential, and helping everyone adopt these new methods as quickly as possible is the leader’s responsibility. Creating a new sense of shared purpose is not just vitally important for the business; it is essential for the recovery process of employees, customers, shareholders and suppliers.
  9. Be Profoundly Human. The best leaders understand that any kind of “normal” may not return for a long time and that people need more genuine compassion, support and understanding than ever before. Productivity takes a beating in the shocked aftermath of a major tragedy like September 11, but effective leaders know to accept this in the short term and to create a supportive, encouraging climate for people to recover their focus and their performance. The compassionate leader can also help reduce people’s stress levels by focusing on the future not the past, and by directing their efforts towards things that can be done to achieve results in the very short term.
    In all of the upheaval that affects everyone, while the leader must be strong and inspiring, it can actually be psychologically reassuring for employees to see that their leader shares their feelings and is willing to show some emotion.
  10. Focus on Action. Real leaders are very quick to recognize and accept the new realities and to focus on taking actions that will deliver the best results now, under the new circumstances. People around the leader urgently want and need to see action.   More than ever, the urgent need is to DO something…hold fact-gathering meetings, develop new plans, make decisions, implement action priorities that get people involved, involve employees at all levels in activities that make them feel worthwhile, reorganize some key activities to show the need to adapt to the new situation, recognize and reward people who spontaneously took the lead in acting courageously or innovatively during the crisis, host morale boosting get-togethers and offer employee counseling to help speed their ability to process the trauma. After any major setback, a real leader’s task is to create an energized sense of new momentum.
  11. Foster a ‘Collective Soul.’ The final quality of crisis leadership is camaraderie. It is critically important to pull people together in a shared sense of emotional attachment, whether it is in patriotism during a national crisis, undertaking some shared activity, helping the community or helping one another. The leader must serve people’s need for a sense of belonging and for a “collective soul” which fulfills the common need for a togetherness to replace the lost but comfortable ‘way it always was’.

Anytime Leadership

September 11 shattered more than the thousands of families who lost loved ones, more than two great towers, more than four aircraft, more than the Pentagon. It shattered “the way we were” — and it created the ground for what we can become. More than ever, now is the time for leadership to help people recover, rebuild and regain our future.

Many real leaders emerge in and are tempered by crisis. The qualities that crisis leaders show in their actions are no different from the qualities which good leaders show all the time. What’s different is that the leaders who emerge in a crisis are able to see beyond the “smoke and rubble” of the crisis and retain the ability to exercise all of their leadership qualities and skills effectively even under the severest pressure.

Regardless of crisis or calm, the common cause of the best leaders is that they create the climate in which the efforts of individuals are focused towards building a stronger, better tomorrow, whether nationally, corporately, in their community or individually.

Bit by bit, we are seeing rays of hope through the dark clouds of September 11. It looks like a reawakening of some of the best qualities of leadership is one of those rays.

Hugh Coppen  is President of Winning Leadership, Inc. A former CEO, he is a Vistage speaker and professional seminar leader who specializes in cutting-edge leadership and change topics.

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