Leadership in a Crisis or Emergency


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A crisis or emergency can arise at any time and without warning. It’s during these times that leaders are tested as effective leadership is critical to the forming and sustainment of a response and recovery. It’s vital that leaders have the skills and tools to think strategically, plan effectively and communicate with clarity to ensure minimal impact on people, organisations and the community.

Leading a team through a complex emergency requires resilience; however, several traits and skill sets can support leaders in operating effectively in times of chaos, high-stress and uncertainty.

1. Controls Chaos

The aftermath of a crisis or emergency can quickly devolve into apparent chaos due to physical or personnel losses as well as individual emotions, stress and fear. Crisis and emergency leaders must take control and bring order to prevent panic, allowing for purposefulness and team alignment, to enable the team to act in a rational and considered manner. Taking control amid chaos is a critical task and one that may be more challenging for a leader that is not trained within a military or emergency services environment, or hasn’t operated in similar circumstances previously. Circumstances may require a leader to overtly display positive strategies, set the example, remain confident to maintain morale or to regain control of an undisciplined working environment.

2. Clarity of Purpose

Unity of effort and purpose are provided when leaders understand what they and the team needs to achieve and why they need to achieve it. Deciding what to do, why to do it and preventing people from losing sight of the end state for the enterprise is perhaps the most critical leadership trait in a crisis. It is a process, an output and an outcome, as well as a personal characteristic. Ultimately, clarity of purpose delivers effectiveness and efficiency (resources & time).

3. Situationally Aware

Effective leaders continually gather and assemble the key facts of any crisis or emergency incident. Almost without exception, this is done under conditions of confusion and uncertainty. Moreover, the information is frequently incomplete, inaccurate, confusing or conflicting. A leader’s ability to take in updated information at all times of the crisis management cycle is essential, not just from external sources, but also from their team. A great leader ensures that feedback loops are built into the management of any incident, and creates the opportunity for all information to be analysed and considered. A good leader will fight for situational awareness, actively seeking additional information personally or through their team to ensure that they remain situationally aware.

4. Accuracy of Communication

Accurate communication, both individually and within a leaders team, is a critical leadership requirement in any circumstance. To ensure accurate communication, the situation, options and output need to be clearly enunciated and recorded (this is a critical requirement during a live event). Strong leaders communicate with precision, credibility, sensitivity and consideration, and confirm that the team or individual has accurately processed the required information.

5. Concentration of Effort

Good leaders understand that concentrating physical and personal resources in time and space to achieve prioritised outcomes is the best path to overall success. Resources need to be prioritised and their role sequenced to achieve maximum benefit in a crisis or emergency.

6. Decisive and Adaptable

A good crisis leader understands that they are responsible for the outcome and knows what it means to act decisively. It is critically important that leaders balance the operational art of crisis management, that is to say balancing enterprise process, with data, information and the judicious employment of experiential instinct to deliver prudent and timely decisions. Often a decision is built on much less confirmed information than a leader is used to receiving in their usual day-to-day role. Nonetheless, it is critically important that they do not delay making a decision. This approach is sometimes known as the 80/20 rule.

7. Trusted

Often leaders have built up a bank of goodwill either through historical performance, relationship management or raw experience. In a crisis, people look to their leaders to make the right decisions in accordance with guiding principles, procedures, legislation or moral obligations. Every action, decision, communication and gesture will be inextricably linked to trust both up and down the crisis management chain, and this trust needs to be maintained for people to be successful in their roles and avoid team instability.

8. Strategic and Tactical

Strong leaders see the bigger picture and ensure they do not lose sight of the enterprise end state. They see all of the moving parts and understand cause and effect. In essence, they understand the system and know what process levers to pull, which stakeholders to call on and when and can dive into the detail without being decisively engaged. They can assist through the provision of direct and specific advice to their team and quickly understand the component parts of pertinent issues. This allows a crisis leader to view the problem pragmatically and realistically. Ultimately, great crisis leaders are cable of maintaining perspective about the problem, can remain grounded, mitigate key risks and keep the strategic endstate of the enterprise in view.

9. Demeanour

Good crisis and emergency leaders inherently feel a sense of urgency but remain balanced, considered, and the lighthouse of composure in uncertain circumstances. They recognise that the team, the organisation and potentially the world is watching them. Poor or ill-disciplined behaviour quickly erodes trust, team cohesion and undermines the confidence of management and boards in the handling of an event. There is a truism that a leader should never run because they will “scare the horses”. An effective leader practices self-control and is self-aware about their own conduct. While not necessarily essential, most great crisis and emergency leaders have high EQs. It helps them to morally prioritise, deliver bad news and make the difficult decisions, in a way that avoids panic and provides confidence in the team and the outcome. Above all, they are courageous enough to make timely and deliberately considered decisions that they believe are the right ones based on current information.

10. Interpersonal Relationships

Relationships matter in a crisis. When crisis strikes, a leader needs to manage and balance many relationships among many diverse stakeholders – the “firm but fair and friendly” approach. It sets the tone for stakeholder engagement and inspires confidence and trust in others to manage conflicts and foster teamwork. Each of these competencies requires self-awareness, self-control and social awareness. Once again, a high EQ will assist in quickly reading the requirements for engaging with any individual, team or stakeholder, which will also reduce the potential for any missteps that can potentially reduce collaboration and cooperation at critical moments.

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