An Oscar for the Crisis Leader

In the three-part blog series on core crisis team roles we kicked off in late 2017, we already addressed the critical roles of Crisis Logger and Crisis Manager. Last but not least, to conclude the series, this month’s blog is all about the Crisis Leader. Often compared to a sport’s team captain, the Crisis Leader is the one who positions his team’s “players” and directs them throughout the crisis. He or she makes the tough calls often on the basis of incomplete information, tremendous opposition and under severe time pressure. But what makes a good crisis leader and what are these crisis leadership skills really about?

With the film award season in full swing and exceptional titles in the running, I could not resist flagging “The Darkest Hour” for its relevance to the role of the Crisis Leader. For those who have not seen it yet, it’s a must. The film recounts Britain’s struggle to evacuate its troops from Dunkirk and avoid surrendering to Hitler in the weeks of May-June 1940. It deftly describes the challenges of these critical few weeks with Churchill, expertly acted by Gary Oldman, at the helm.
Churchill, often touted as an exemplary crisis leader throughout WWII was not without opposition in the early part of the war. But as Prime Minister, he was in charge and he knew the buck stopped with him.

The film wonderfully illustrates some of the most vital crisis leadership skills. Let’s consider a few:

1 – Sense-Making – The ability to give purpose, mission and meaning to those affected by the crisis.

In his famous speech at the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, Churchill gave this sense of purpose, mission and meaning perfectly: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”.

In the business context, the crisis team must quickly define purpose and meaning for itself and the rest of the organisation. Crises typically get worse before they get better and setting and holding the course in a crisis is essential to survival. The crisis team must state its “Crisis Mission Statement” and display it on the walls of the crisis room for all to focus on. Based on company values, the “Crisis Mission Statement” works as a foundation to underpin all communications with stakeholders throughout the duration of the crisis.

2 – Crisis decision-making – The ability to make informed and effective decisions under pressure, including:

  • Assessing options and using relevant information
  • Progressing issues – even when only partial information is available, under time pressure and in consideration of the risks associated with the situation
  • Accepting that risks will have to be taken and managing the implications of ensuing actions (even when these are not popular)
  • Taking ultimate responsibility

In a dramatic scene early in the film, Churchill is seen in the middle of a war cabinet meeting banging his chair on the floor to show that, as the man in charge, he will take full responsibility for his decisions even when they do not have the support of all. Clear assertiveness under pressure is the essence of a good crisis leader.

In the day to day running of business when we have time to consider problems, to take into account different aspects of the situation and to fix mistakes, we value and prefer to make decisions on the basis of majority or consensus – everybody is heard and participation in the decision-making process is encouraged because it typically generates more effective results.

However, in a crisis, there is no time to fix mistakes, often there is insufficient information to make decisions, and the risks, pressure, opposition and stakes are high. Therefore, to be effective in a crisis, the style of leadership must be more hierarchical and typically relies on a single decision-maker.

3 – Out of The Box Thinking – Crises are extraordinary situations with acute impact potential that demand extraordinary solutions. No two crises are the same. Therefore, whilst a good crisis plan is necessary to help the organisation navigate the chaos, out-of-the-box problem solving often brings turning points in otherwise hopeless situations.

In the desperate need to bring home hundreds of thousands of soldiers from Dunkirk, Churchill’s out-of-the box thinking generated an unlikely solution: the “little ships of Dunkirk” – a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts, and lifeboats called into service from Britain which helped evacuate soldiers from France.

4 – Clear and Regular Communication – Information and updates must be spelled out regularly. This is vital to keep all stakeholders abreast of developments and decisions, to prevent misperceptions and rumours that can further deteriorate the situation.

In another scene, dramatized with great effect, Churchill is seen riding the London Underground listening and talking to people. Churchill’s visibility and regular communication with the British people during the war via his public radio broadcasts ensured that the population was kept informed and motivated.

Other essential crisis leadership skills include situational awareness, stakeholder mapping and the ability to continuously anticipate and prepare for the worst, to name a few. Crisis leadership skills can be developed and honed in through training, crisis exercises and of course real-life experience.

Let’s face it, a crisis is not a “bad week at the office”, it’s a period of exceptional disruption that calls for exceptional skills. Therefore the Crisis Leader cannot by default be just any senior executive, nor for that matter the CEO. Since the best crisis teams are made on the basis of suitability and not functionality alone, the Crisis Leader needs more than functional expertise and business experience. He or she must have crisis-specific skills to steer the course through the storm and preserve credibility at all costs. Leaders who strive to sustain stakeholder trust in the most adverse circumstances have a chance not only to survive the crisis, but also potentially emerge from it stronger.

For more information on CS&A’s crisis leadership competency assessment, protocol and development, please get in touch.

Caroline Sapriel is Founder and Managing Partner of CS&A International, a leading expert firm in risk, crisis and business continuity globally. With over 25 years experience, Caroline has provided counsel in crisis management to multi-national clients across industry sectors internationally.

CS&A’s 10 Commandments of Crisis Management:

  1. Own up to and communicate the problem early on
  2. Recognise that you cannot make what is bad look good
  3. Be prepared for the worst. In a crisis, things get worse before they get better.
  4. Prioritise and remember people’s safety is always first.
  5. Focus on protecting your credibility and not winning brownie points.
  6. Set the course, have a Mission Statement and stick to it.
  7. Map and remap issues and stakeholders as the situation develops.
  8. Use every available channel to communicate with your stakeholders.
  9. If the crisis drags, don’t retreat into a siege. Stay out there!
  10. Manage the aftermath of the crisis. Remember, it’s not over until it’s really over.

 

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