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Crisis Leadership Through a Be, Know, Do Lens

Crisis Leadership Through a Be, Know, Do Lens
We live and work in a world that is becoming more complex, volatile, and uncertain everyday. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided all of us with a tangible and for many, frightening illustration of this reality. As this virus has undoubtedly had an impact on you and your family, you’ve likely paid a great deal of attention to how those around you have been or have not been demonstrating leadership. What have you learned? Almost certainly you’ve come to the conclusion that rarely has the need for exceptional leadership been so clear, or so important. What should you expect from leaders in a crisis? As a crisis leader, what should your stakeholders, your families, your businesses, your employees, your communities, etc, expect from you?
A growing body of research offer some answers to these questions. What do those looking for leadership want to see in a crisis leader? A framework that’s been used by the United States Army for decades, known as Be, Know, Do, provides a practical structure for outlining these expectations. So allow me to use this framework for describing how crisis leaders should be, what they need to know, and what they should do during a crisis. I know you’ll find these useful. If you were asked to describe what a crisis leaders should be during a crisis; in other words, if you had to describe the characteristics that you’d like that leader to demonstrate in the midst of a crisis, what would you say?
Think about that for a moment. From your COVID-19 experience, what should a leader be to instill confidence and deserve the trust of stakeholders? From research conducted at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, the most effective crisis leaders are, first, visible. Stakeholders want to see them in front of their teams leading the response. Second, caring. The most effective crisis leaders are able to demonstrate a great sense of care and concern for all stakeholders. Third, empathetic. Not only must crisis leaders care for their stakeholders, they must recognize that some have lost, or will lose a great deal, as a result of this catastrophe, and that there loss deserves acknowledgment and empathy. Four, calm. Stress and fear produce anxiety in stakeholders.
The most effective crisis leaders are able to remain calm, think clearly, and through their composure can help reduce stress and fear in others. Five, assertive. Not only to stakeholders want to be able to see their crisis leaders, but they want to see them doing something, to be asserting themselves, and working toward a solution to the crisis. What do you want your crisis leaders to clearly understand, to know in order to support your organization and its stakeholders during a crisis? Again, in our research at Michigan Ross, we consistently hear that stakeholders want their crisis leaders to have a crystal-clear understanding of three things. First, organizational vision.
To be truly effective, crisis leaders should know, be able to articulate, and be able to align their crisis leadership efforts to the organization’s mission and vision. A portion of every stakeholder’s value proposition is attached to their belief and what the organization is trying to accomplish. Incorporating the organization’s vision and mission into a crisis response will resonate with stakeholders. Second, organizational values. If an organization’s vision describes what it is trying to accomplish, then its values describe the way it plans to get there. A great deal of research has been done on the extent to which employees aspire to work for a company that shares their values. New research indicates other stakeholder groups, particularly customers, want values alignment as well.
In a crisis, stakeholders will be looking for an organization to walk the talk. This is best demonstrated through values-driven leadership. Third, guiding principles. Crisis leaders will be required to make an incredible number of decisions with limited information. Many of these decisions will prove to be less than perfect over time as new information becomes available. This is not typically a product of poor decision-making, but rather a function of the crisis environment itself. What can be done to improve this seemingly impossible situation for crisis leaders? We can help stakeholders understand how and why decisions are being made. The most effective crisis leaders create and share a set of guiding principles that can be used in the decision-making process.
Examples of guiding principles include, we will value, protect, and support our people, we will deliver on the vision and mission of our organization, and we will communicate effectively and thoughtfully with all of our stakeholders throughout the crisis. Principles such as these can help stakeholders understand how decisions are being made before they begin to judge them after they’ve been made. What should crisis leaders be doing during a crisis? Our research points to four primary actions that are core to effective crisis leadership. First, communicate. We know that stakeholders are anxious during a crisis because their value propositions are being threatened. Given these concerns, what do these stakeholders want and need to deal with their fear?
They need information, they need clear, compelling, consistent, and reliable communication. As a crisis leader, you should establish a communication plan, inform stakeholders of your plan, and become their primary source of learning about your intentions, your actions, and the facts as they become available. Seconds, make decisions with limited information. A primary responsibility of every leader is decision-making. Unfortunately, during a crisis, leaders will be required to make urgent decisions with limited information. As mentioned earlier, this is why guiding principles becomes so important. But these principals won’t resolve the fact that decisions made by crisis leaders will typically produce as many poor outcomes as good ones.
Exceptional crisis leaders embrace the reality that decisions made early in a crisis may have to be modified or even reversed as more as learned about the situation. This reality will make decision-making uncomfortable. But the alternative of not making decisions until all the facts are in and the choices are clear will almost certainly produce disastrous results. Third, take responsibility. Stakeholders want to understand what led to the crisis and who was ultimately at fault. As humans, we’re wired to be extraordinarily curious about causation and the attribution of blame. When it’s clear that the organization or a member of the organization is at fault in a crisis, the most effective crisis leaders communicate this reality to their stakeholders at their earliest opportunity.
Fourth, engage stakeholders. If it hasn’t been made clear enough already, stakeholder engagement may be the most valuable and important action a crisis leader can take. For a given crisis, exceptional crisis leaders take the time to determine how all of their stakeholder groups have been or will be impacted, and engage each of them in a way that helps them understand that they care, that they empathize, that they are taking ownership of finding a resolution, and that they’re committed to creating a stronger organization going forward as a result of what they’ve learned through the crisis. During a crisis, stakeholders will be looking for tangible evidence of leadership. They’ll want and need leaders to believe in, who understand and appreciate their perspective.
They’ll not expect crisis leaders to be perfect, or omniscient, but they’ll expect them to be visible, courageous, and committed to the best path forward. Are you doing all that you can to be ready for your next crisis? Your organization and your stakeholders will be depending on you.
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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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