The Role of a Leader During Crisis
A crisis can make or break a leader. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some leaders rose to the challenge—keeping their employees, customers and stakeholders informed, pausing and restarting operations, and managing the secondary effects of socio-economic disruption. On the other hand, we had leaders that were flustered—communicating poorly, not sharing useful and reliable information, and not delivering on promises.
Although the pandemic differs from other crises, the glaring fact that has been exposed is that not all leaders are equipped to handle a crisis effectively. What leaders have to realize is that when a crisis hits, they cannot expect things to fall in place on their own. Crisis leadership is all about active preparation and execution of remedial methods. Surprisingly, a 2020 study revealed that 36.4% of businesses had no budget allocated for emergency communications tools or software. So let’s look at some of the most crucial elements of crisis leadership.
Best practices for crisis communication, developed over years and based on psychological and organizational research, point to transparency, honesty, and empathy. Top-down communication needs to be clear, consistent and non-confusing and should be packaged in an easily consumable manner. Complete transparency is essential to avoid mistrust and uncertainty. But they need to tread a fine balance when stating the magnitude of a situation and explain the real situation without sounding too optimistic or pessimistic. Leaders also need to communicate empathically by acknowledging the problems an employee would be facing during a crisis and understanding their emotional reality.
Preparedness to respond
By definition, crises are usually unexpected. But the real test of leadership does not occur when everything is smooth sailing. Good leaders must be prepared and respond effectively to the crisis and develop creative solutions fine-tuned to each crisis, but based on certain protocols that have already been established. Just 46% of senior-level executives surveyed working involved in ethics, compliance, risk management, and other fields related to crisis management were “somewhat confident” in their ability to manage a crisis according to a Morrison & Foerster and Ethisphere study. A “good” example of this is the poor crisis management by the leadership team during the BP oil spill near Mexico in 2011, where several workers perished and the environment was severely impacted. And let’s not even get started on Enron!
This is one of the most important things a leader needs to do during a crisis. Imagine being guided by a leader who is nervous and does not seem in control of the situation. Employees need someone they can rely on, not someone they need to reassure.
During a crisis, the office can rapidly slip into chaos. Leaders must know how to take control and stop the panic from spreading, and ensure that everyone is focused on completing whatever actions are required to mitigate or overturn the crisis.
A crisis can change by the day or even by the hour. That’s why leaders must be prepared to rapidly process available information make decisions. They must break through the inertia to keep the organization focused on business continuity. Leaders should seek inputs from diverse sources, and after identifying the areas that need attention they should bring in outside expertise where needed. It is also important to communicate with employees via established channels that are trusted by employees. A crisis is not a good time to experiment with modes of communication.
During a crisis, a leader’s goal is to reduce loss and keep things operating as normally as possible. The type of crises an organization might face can range from financial issues to hacking attacks to natural disasters. And the impact of these kinds of incidents can be catastrophic and lasting if they’re not quickly and effectively buttoned up. Behaviors, such as empathy, empowerment, and humility, are keys to successfully leading an organization through unprecedented challenges and continuously changing conditions presented by the pandemic, or other crisis.