In the time of crisis ... Are You Prepared To Lead?
- Published on July 11, 2011
According to one definition, leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. Half of us will debate the fact that leadership is an “art” while the other half will debate it being a “science.” But, no matter what side of the fence you sit on, everyone would agree that good leadership significantly impacts an organizations ability to achieve its goal(s). And think about it, when we are in the midst of a crisis, isn’t that the time we really want strong, solid leadership the most? Don’t we want someone who steps forward when things are bad and brings order out of chaos. Might that be you?
I have always appreciated good leadership. You know, those individuals that made you feel good about pushing yourself harder than what you thought you could so that you accomplished more than what you dreamed possible. And, you eagerly came back for more. Like you, I’ve had the pleasure of working for a few good leaders in my time (few is the operative word).
For a leader, a crisis can serve as his or her defining moment. It’s these moments that reflect what leaders stand for and why they chose to lead. It’s at that point that a leader can put all of their experience, compassion, energy, and drive into practice and really make a difference.
Generally, when we think of leaders, we think of military leaders like generals and admirals or political leaders like presidents. In the business world we may think of names like Welch, Iacocca, or Whitacre. But who comes to mind when you think of true leadership in the field of business continuity? Who has pushed the envelope and rallied the troops to accomplish great things? Perhaps the names Arnold or Devlin come to mind. They do with me, and there are a few others. Maybe you’re thinking of someone you’ve worked with on a more local level? No matter who comes to mind, this article isn’t about them. It’s really about you. It’s about recognizing your leadership interest and potential. It’s about being proactive in seeking out opportunities to develop your leadership skills. And, it’s about you being ready to lead, not just manage, when the crisis happens.
So, let’s start now. In a “business as usual” environment, organizations have time to select and develop leaders. They are afforded the luxury of time, which allows them the opportunity to carefully observe the talent pool for potential leaders. Time also allows them the opportunity to allow potential leaders to grow and develop through both experience and training. Over time, some will develop into not only good but also great leaders. Others, will realize, or be recognized, as formidable managers, but not leaders.
Potential leaders also benefit from time. With time, developing leaders can broaden their knowledge through reading books and watching other leaders in action. They can also learn from mentors and coaches. Just as valuable, if not more, they can learn from their trial and error.
But, what about leadership in a crisis? At no time is good, solid leadership more important than during a crisis. For a leader, a crisis can serve as his or her defining moment. It’s these moments that reflect what leaders stand for and why they chose to lead. It’s at that point that a leader can put all of their experience, compassion, energy, and drive into practice and really make a difference. A crisis pushes leaders to their limits and tests whether they will be able to hold true to their beliefs under the toughest of circumstances. When handled appropriately, crisis can be a valuable opportunity for long-term success. Decisions made in critical or challenging situations not only shapes and defines a leader; they also inform others about who the leader is as a person and a leader.
Make no mistake, solid leadership does make a difference, in both business-as-usual and in a crisis. Without it, goals cannot be achieved, nor can progress be attained, but becoming an exceptional leader isn’t easy. It takes hard work, perseverance, and a sincere willingness to work with people. All are ingredients for exceptional leadership. As leaders, we must remember that our teams can be both the greatest asset and the biggest liability for the organization. Having the right people gives leaders and their teams, and by extension the organization, the best chance to be successful.
In an effort to better understand leadership in a crisis, I recently interviewed twelve individuals that work in public safety jobs (law enforcement or fire service) and have attained a senior management position that carries a “chief” title (i.e. assistant chief, or deputy chief). These are the folks that deal with life safety (victims and rescuers) on a daily basis. From those interviews, I affirmed the following key traits of good leadership in a crisis:
Just because you’re a good manager doesn’t mean you are destined to be a good leader.
Most would agree that there’s a difference between management and leadership. Generally, management is associated with a very tactical role or day-to-day operations. Managers are the ones who get us from point A to point B. Leaders on the other hand are generally focused at a higher, or strategic, level. They’re setting point B as our destination. Leaders need time to develop. They start out as managers and gain experience in several key areas including interpersonal skills and communications, operational knowledge, and strategic thinking and decision-making.
Leaders see the big picture.
In his book “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis” author Bill George identifies the first step in leading through a crisis is to recognize the crisis and define the problem accurately. According to George, this is the only path toward successfully developing a solution. Beyond the initial recognition of the crisis, a leader’s experience has taught him/her how to look past the immediate, thereby avoiding a myopic view. To do so otherwise could cost lives. When needed, they solicit information from other sources and use it to effectively develop the “landscape view” of the situation.
Leaders communicate effectively.
They know who their stakeholders are ... up, down, and across. Their messaging is timely, consistent, and appropriate for the receiver.
Leaders make the tough decisions.
According to James Lee Witt, in his book “Stronger in the Broken Places,” managing a crisis effectively requires a series of decisions that must be made quickly, under intense pressure, and with little chance to reflect or research. Leaders lead with integrity and are prepared to make decisions that may not be the most popular but are necessary for the greater good. From their big picture view, they can process the information at hand in a timely manner and make calculated decisions that in turn drive action. They also solicit continual validation of progress. If things don’t go as planned, leaders stand ready with a Plan B … and a Plan C.
A good example of a leader making a tough decision is the late Kotaku Wamura. Recently reported in the Associated Press article “How One Japanese Village Defied the Tsunami,” Wamura was a 10-term mayor of Fudai, Japan, which is the village that survived the recent tsunami — thanks to a huge wall, once deemed a mayor’s expensive folly and now vindicated as the community’s salvation. Wamura’s political reign began in the ashes of World War II and ended in 1987. The 51-foot (15.5-meter) floodgate between mountainsides took a dozen years to build and meant spending more than $30 million in today’s dollars. The floodgate project was criticized as wasteful in the 1970s. The village council initially balked. Local landowners were bitter about being forced to sell land to the government. Despite his decision being unpopular, he stuck by it.
At his retirement, Wamura stood before village employees to bid farewell: “Even if you encounter opposition, have conviction and finish what you start. In the end, people will understand.”
Leaders bring calm to stressful situations.
Sometimes this happens using just the tone of their voice and pace of their speech to help put people at ease. They display confidence in themselves and those that they lead. They are like a duck swimming on a pond. From above the water the duck looks relaxed and calm just gliding across the water. But look underneath and its feet are paddling a mile a minute.
A good leader knows the strengths and weaknesses of his/her people and how to effectively use them in a “time sensitive” environment.
A leader also creates environments that encourage followers to succeed. Leaders recognize the value of people and what they bring to the team. They surround themselves with talented people. They empower them and give them the latitude to perform. They also recognize that if individuals don’t develop and grow, the team doesn’t develop or grow.
Leaders don’t stop learning, developing, or improving.
Leaders are the type of people who aren’t willing to sit back and rest on past successes. Rather, they are individuals who are always looking for improvement; improvement in both their teams and themselves. Looking for new ideas and fresh perspectives, leaders read books, attend webinars, seminars, and conferences. They also solicit feedback from others. In business continuity, this information may come during an after action review that follows an actual incident. However, more than likely, leadership feedback will be solicited in a more personal way such as a one-on-one feedback session or through a “360-review.”
In conclusion, there is a difference between being a manager (tactical) and a leader (strategic). There’s a difference between leading in a “business-as-usual” environment (time) and leading in a crisis (dynamic). Good leaders lead others through crises and emerge as winners due to their courage to turn a challenge into an advantage. A crisis is not something to fear, but something to be used to define one’s ability to lead. In some circumstances, it shows leaders who they really are when under tremendous pressure and scrutiny. A crisis is the real test of a leader, and people often remember how others responded in trying times. In this way, a crisis can define leaders to others. In times of crisis, people often look to a leader’s heart and humanity, not just their intellect.
Eugene Kranz once said, “The leader has to be unflappable. No matter what is going on around you, you have to be cooler than cool. You have to be smarter than smart.”
So what about you? Are you someone that can lead in a crisis?
Tim Bonno is a business continuity professional with more than 20 years of experience. Currently involved in a job search, Bonno instructs classes for both a Midwestern state emergency management agency and a state university. Bonno also is the current president of the MidAmerica Contingency Planning Forum (MCPF). You may contact Bonno at firstname.lastname@example.org.