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Sharpening your Crisis Leadership Skills for the Challenging Times Ahead

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

by Anthony Spota and Caroline Sapriel

For the last 6 months the Covid-19 pandemic has put a massive amount of stress and responsibility on the shoulders of corporate leaders. Many executives have had to simultaneously deal with safety, business, legal and stress management issues to name a few. Their successes and mistakes have received unprecedented attention, sometimes by the public and more often internally by employees.

The importance of crisis management and business continuity has become evident in these circumstances and many organizations are now recruiting for these positions as a consequence. Yet, the kind of leadership skills required in these challenging times has been little discussed. Although there is a bounty of research and materials available about leadership in general, what it takes to lead in a crisis is less obvious and less documented and a critical topic that deserves bespoke attention. So, what are some of the specific competencies needed to lead in a crisis? And how can leaders develop such skills?

“A crisis is not a bad week at the office”, says Caroline Sapriel, Managing Partner of CS&A International.

Whilst no two crises are the same, the skills needed to lead through them are often similar. Crises are inherently high-stress situations. Therefore, recognizing that leading in a crisis effectively requires specific hard and soft competencies is a good place to start. It is also necessary to acknowledge that each individual will bring his or her own personality and experience to the table.

To enhance crisis leadership skills, one must begin by assessing crisis leaders and their teams’ strengths and weaknesses in order to determine which skills they need to acquire or sharpen. This can be done through a formal crisis management competency assessment conducted by expert assessors and can also include self-assessments, crisis exercises and 360-degree feedback from colleagues. The assessment should cover the full range of technical and non-technical competencies needed for crisis management which typically include among others mission setting and sense-making, situational awareness, prioritizing and allocation of resources, listening and communication skills, decision-making, and stakeholder mapping, etc.

Let’s consider the crisis leadership skills of mission-setting for a moment. A Crisis Mission Statement, which must be defined at the onset of a crisis, is one of the useful ways to keep the organization focused on the expected outcome and to evaluate performance post crisis. The Crisis Leader’s ability to set the course early on in the crisis and hold that course throughout can be a make or break move.

Situational Awareness is key during a crisis and a leader must maintain the helicopter view even when stressful events can make it difficult to do so. The ability to continuously assess new facts and developments as well as considering possible impact and escalations is essential to making decisions in terms of resource allocations and mitigating actions. Good situational awareness is the foundation of any and all crisis leadership strategies.

Communication skills also deserves specific consideration in a crisis context. Whilst internal and external stakeholder communication is essential to sound business conduct day-to-day, in times of crises, it can literally be the difference between life and death. In today’s globally connected world with information and fake news flying at the speed of light, perceptions and misperceptions are shaped instantly and virally. Therefore, it is also vital to be sensitive and respond differently to different audiences in different situations. For example, if your organization had an unintentional accident it must communicate differently from a situation where there was a transgression with a high attribution level of responsibility.

Whilst regular stakeholder mapping and developing relationships with important contacts is a much-needed business task pre and post-crisis, during a crisis it becomes a survival skill. Organizations’ reputations depend greatly on stakeholders’ good will and trust. Identifying affected stakeholder and managing perceptions through sensitive communication can help diffuse hostility and prevent escalation. Crisis leaders must learn to listen and demonstrate empathy to sustain staff morale in difficult circumstances, as well as be sensitive to external issues and perceptions with a range of audiences, including the media.

Crisis decision-making is inherently different from day-to-day decision-making. Under the high-pressure conditions of a crisis, if they are to survive, leaders will need to assume an assertive and attentive leadership style which could be perceived as autocratic and overbearing in normal times. Self-awareness is key. Do you recognize your instinctive and emotional biases and are you ready to think things through to make more logical choices? With less time and limited facts to make informed and balanced decisions, the crisis leader is acutely aware that the “buck stop with him or her” and this will invite scrutiny and add stress.

Accepting the feelings of stress and channeling them to bring out the best in yourself and your team, learning to be more self-aware and finding the right ways to let off steam are essential tools for leaders and their teams to survive a crisis.

Whilst assessing oneself and learning about the different crisis leadership competencies is the starting point, practice to assimilate these skills is the next. Since crises are periods of high stress, crisis leaders can easily forget their training and go back to instinct unless they have had sufficient practice to embed the necessary reflexes. Proficiency is achieved through regular simulation exercises and worst-case scenario planning workshops that encourage participants to think outside the box when faced with unprecedented and acute situations. Medical personnel, firefighters, police are frequently drilled and develop the kinds of reflexes, yet corporate leaders often underestimate the importance of developing these types of competencies until it is too late.

Covid-19 has perhaps been the worst crisis of our lifetime and all indications are that we are still not out of the woods. The good news is that it has given many leaders something which is irreplaceable: Experience. Crisis teams throughout the world have been forced to practice their skills and are more aware than ever of their company’s strengths and weaknesses. So, now is not the time to let your guards down. Don’t be complacent, build on this momentum to make sure your organization is ready for another unforeseen event. Sharpen your crisis leadership skills so you can steer out of the next one better and emerge stronger on the other side.

Caroline Sapriel is Managing Partner of CS&A International. With over 25 years experience in risk and crisis management, she is recognized as a leader in her profession and acknowledged for her ability to provide customized, results-driven counsel and training at the highest level.

Anthony Spota is a Senior Consultant with CS&A International based in Brussels. With a background in Communication and HR, he helps prepare the firm’s clients for the crises of tomorrow by designing tailored communication, HR, and operational crisis response strategies.

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