Crisis Leadership: Conjuring the best out of the worst

Crisis Leadership: Conjuring the best out of the worst

Throughout history, catastrophes have always exposed the contrasting extremes of human nature. Perhaps the most famous quote in this regard can be found in the opening lines of “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the French Revolution, it begins with:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”.

Indeed, a crisis often brings out the best – both in people and in organizations – and the recent Coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

Every crisis follows a similar curve. It has a beginning – before which things have been stable and predictable, then a mid-point – the peak of chaos and disruption, and finally the end – post which the condition is usually different than it was before the crisis. How the Leadership acts during the crisis determines how well an enterprise is going to adapt and survive – if at all.

Author Rebecca Solnit has analysed the world’s worst catastrophes – both natural and man-made. In her book “A Paradise Built in Hell”,she writes that every disaster “drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save our neighbours, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living.”

There is a paradox in the term “Crisis Leadership”. While a crisis calls for quick decisions, immediate actions and fast mobilisation, leadership traditionally involves looking beyond short-term needs, visualising the threats on the horizon and planning ahead. Crisis Leadership calls for a judicious balance between the two. Because every crisis must be tackled with an eye to avoid future recurrence.

Typically, most crises are over-managed and under-led. The following are areas which might prevent Leaders in tackling a crisis effectively:

  • Not looking beyond the immediate fire. Such a narrow focus might restrict future rebuilding efforts once the crisis is over.
  • Getting over-involved in micro-managing, rather than leading. This can lead to a false impression of getting a lot done hands-on; in reality, it prevents the leader from looking far and not delegating according to abilities – thus adding to the disruption.
  • Putting in too many checks and controls out of panic. This creates procedural obstacles to every minor decision, leading to a slowdown and frustration at the floor level.
  • Ignoring the human factors in favour of legalese, business metrics, returns, and outlays. Organisations are run by people and any crisis directly impacts them at the first level. Every other impact is subsequent, indirect and intangible. Alienating employees in face of a disaster is worse than the worst crisis.

An ideal leader would let bad times bring out the best in the organisation. Here’s how:

  • Being part of the solution through individual capacity: Every Leader has a unique leadership approach and a core set of skills. Pitching in based on individual strength can generate enormous positive vibes throughout the organisation as well as fully optimise available resources.
  • Revealing the human face through personal stories: When Leaders open up to employees, they know exactly how they feel and think about the crisis, and how are they coping as a fellow human. A great Leader communicates effectively with authenticity and purpose, always without scripts and notes!
  • Being empathetic: While this is a minimum social requirement in times of stress, it is crucial for a good Leader. Every employee confronts and copes with a crisis differently. Leaders should respect and uphold this diversity through: listening, being supportive, comforting, offering timely guidance, intervening as necessary, and communicating with compassion.
  • Learning from the crisis and readying a better response for the future:Any crisis leads to disorientation because old standards are gone, and a yet-unknown future awaits us. The best way to cope is to relearn and adopt new ways of thinking. No one will have all the answers. But having the right mindset allows Leaders to think clearly – and that helps.

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