#576  Innovative Leader                 Volume 12, Number 5                    May 2003

Leading During Times of Crisis
by Lynn Rolston and Denise McNerney

Ms. Rolston and Ms. McNerney are CEO’s of IBossWell (www.IBossWell.com).

The terrible and tragic events of September 11, 2001 have given us much to think about.  Within minutes of these events many of us were wondering what it all meant.  We looked to our leaders to provide answers, direction and reassurances. 

What lessons are there in all of this for those of us who lead in more “routine” circumstances?  What are some universal approaches to leading those around us through difficult and confusing times?  While most of us won’t be called upon to lead in situations like the U.S. President faces today, we may be called upon to let our people know of layoffs, business calamities, human tragedies or other events that cause people to look to us for guidance.

We believe there are four basic elements to leading in times of crisis.  These include (1) being visible and available, (2) communicating supportively, carefully and regularly, (3) controlling one’s behavior and reactions, and (4) giving the situation perspective to create alignment.  Let’s take each one and examine them for practical application.

Visibility - The faster you can become visible and available to people following a crisis, the fewer rumors and stories you will have to deal with later.  For the people we lead, these events can be terrifying, unexpected and confusing.  They crave answers quickly from someone in charge.  Even if all we can say is that we are checking into the situation and will provide more information as soon as possible, we have gone a long way toward calming fear and concern.  Seeing a leader is critical and to the extent that you can walk through your office or plant site, you should make the time to do so.  Voice contact is also important although what are lost are the visual cues that your presence provides. 

Written explanations are important too, but not until after you have been seen and heard. Never substitute memos or letters for the more personal contact of face-to-face or phone.  The call for the President to speak to the nation on television immediately after the terrorist plane bombings continued to grow in volume and urgency until he was seen at a press conference in Louisiana hours later.  His appearance was hindered by threats and other events that we may not know of; however, we are confident it was held as quickly as possible under the circumstances.  We point this out to underscore the people’s need in this regard and urge you to give visibility a high priority.

Communications – We all have a tendency to search our experience and imagination for clues as to why something happens to us and to construct theories to respond appropriately.  Leaders must take seriously the need to provide careful explanations and information as quickly as possible, or people will do this themselves; perhaps creating more chaos and confusion.  People need to be informed rapidly of any steps they need to take, what the consequences are of the event and what this will mean for the future.  If the event was planned by the company, as with layoffs or mergers, leaders need to be fully briefed in advance and given enough information so they can answer questions and make appropriate decisions within their responsibility to move things forward.  In unexpected circumstances, leaders need information as soon as possible.  In the meantime, they can create calm and order by giving people as much information as possible and having them focus on tasks at hand. 

Another important process is holding a safe and supportive forum where people can express their thoughts and feelings, and feel that they are being fully heard.  A leader does not need to have all the answers to the questions and issues.  Providing an open ear and a firm shoulder to lean on becomes tremendously helpful in such times.  Leaders can create a sense of order and encourage patience in times of crisis, by holding these forums on a regular and frequent basis, as appropriate. 

Self Control – Especially in the case of unexpected events, leaders will have their own reactions and needs for answers. They will need to sort out fact from fiction and establish perspective to know how to proceed.  This is not an easy thing to do.  It takes tremendous courage to rise to the call of leadership during times of crisis, particularly when leaders are trying to deal with their own fears, reactions and concerns at the same time.  It is crucial that they take the time immediately, even if it is only seconds, to become calm and clear about what they want to lead their people to do and how they want them to view the situation. 

We have all seen leaders who panicked, made faces or said regrettable things in the heat of the moment.  These behaviors are nearly impossible to overcome later.  The memories of those we lead are long, and negative impressions stick tenaciously.  These behaviors also set the stage for all reactions and actions to be taken by followers.  Even simple gestures like eye rolling, winking, etc. can cue people to the “real” situation, which they then perceive is underneath what is publicly said.  Every word, deed or motion a leader makes in a time of crisis is more highly scrutinized than usual.  Care, control and composure are crucial in difficult times.  Sincerity and authenticity are also critically important.

Perspective – Creating the big picture is one of the most critical things a leader must do.  Taking all available information and putting it into an historical or contextual perspective sets up the background within which events unfold.  During this crisis, our nation’s leaders and the news media have searched for related events in the past that help to predict future actions and subsequent events.  Perspective is built from facts and figures culled from other experiences and even unrelated areas that have relevance and bearing on what is going on currently.  Our understanding of historical events in the Middle East has helped to provide perspective, as has information about what families and survivors needed following the tragedy in Oklahoma City.  Leaders must call on their life experience and knowledge of the past to help create a bigger picture.  When multiple leaders are involved in a situation they should use the same examples and interpretations where possible, to create a seamless impression of events for their people.

Leadership is a very demanding role and important even in our routine daily lives.  Leadership isn’t easy, and takes constant vigilance to do it well.  Everyone makes mistakes; but for leaders, they are multiplied by the number of followers and the number of people those followers influence.  The most important qualities a leader needs are the courage, desire and will to lead well.  If you have these you will rise to the occasion as life’s challenges present themselves.

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