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Being a Crisis Leader

Being a Crisis Leader
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What makes it so difficult to be a crisis leader? I’ve suggested five observable ways that stakeholders need crisis leaders to be during a crisis. Let me speak for a minute on each one of them. First, be visible. Think about your own response to the COVID-19 or any other crisis that you’ve been impacted by. Or if it’s easier for you to visualize, think about the last time you were impacted by a particularly troubling disruption of some sort that caused a bit of anxiety. Perhaps you’ve been the unfortunate victim of a delayed flight, that just keeps being delayed further but no communication is taking place.
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Maybe you’ve even seen the poor customer service agents at the gate being tormented by angry customers, even though the customers understand that these agents probably don’t have much better information than they do. If this was your situation, what did you want from airline leadership? Sure you wanted the problem fixed but in the the process of getting it fixed, what did you want? You wanted to see someone in leadership? You wanted them to be visible, you wanted to be able to confirm that a company leader was aware of the situation and at least appeared to be working on your behalf to solve the problem. What do you suppose the gate agents wanted to see?
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Yes, they wanted to see the problem fixed as well. But they also wanted their leader to be supportive of them. They wanted their leader to be visible. To see the ugly position the company put them in and to see their leaders not above rolling up their sleeves and helping out. Second and third, be caring and empathetic. I’ll talk about these together. They’re closely related, but I view them as different things because they’ll feel different to stakeholders. When a crisis is playing out, individuals and stakeholder groups will want to know that leaders of the organization dealing with the crisis care about them.
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For crisis leaders caring means acknowledging the hardship that has been created for these stakeholders and demonstrating in some way that the caring is being translated into actions that will lead to a rapid and satisfying resolution. One of the most important actions that a high-stakes leader can take at the onset and throughout a crisis is to continually remind stakeholders that you care for them, and are taking actions to address their interests. Empathy is related but different. It’s an extension of caring but takes the additional step of acknowledging a loss. Stakeholders not only want to that you care about them during and after a crisis, but they’ll be in need of support if they’ve suffered a loss in the process.
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When you know that your stakeholders have suffered a loss, especially if that loss is the loss of a loved one, you must acknowledge and demonstrate empathy for the loss. And I’ll add this for emphasis to make sure we’re on the same page here, you must mean it. Sometimes what gets in the way of an expression of empathy is the notion that demonstrating such an expression somehow suggest guilt or an admission of responsibility. It does not, don’t let this happen to you. When a stakeholder suffers a loss be empathetic. If you are you will find these stakeholders to be much more understanding after the fact and that their levels of moral outrage will be reduced perhaps dramatically.
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Fourth, stakeholders want their crisis leaders to be calm. There’s been plenty of research on the importance of staying calm during a crisis. Much of this research describes the physiological impact of not staying calm during a crisis and how these physiological responses reduce one’s ability to perform well mentally and think clearly. I’m going to leave it to you to conduct your own research here both on the topic of what happens to your body when you’re stressed and what you can do to reduce that stress during a crisis. You won’t have any problem finding a lots of material on these subjects. Suffice it to say, staying calm and not panicking will help you perform better as a crisis leader.
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That said staying calm is not just a matter of optimizing your own mental acuity during a crisis. Just as importantly your ability to stay calm during a crisis will help others remain calm as well or at least it will not present another reason for them to feel even more stress. I’m sure that you’ve observed other leaders at a time when it would have been easy to let stress become a factor in their performance or decision-making. How did they do? Did you ask them what they did to remain calm? Next time you have the opportunity, you might find their feedback interesting. Just remember that your stakeholders will be looking to you for tangible evidence of leadership during a crisis.
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When they look, they want and need leaders to believe them. Leaders are seem to have control of themselves will have the appearance at least of someone that has things under control, that is worthy of trusting. And when it comes to a crisis situation perception is often just as important as reality. Fifth and finally, stakeholders want their leaders to be assertive. I’m not suggesting assertive in the overly aggressive sense, but rather in a confident and self-assured way. Stakeholders want their leaders to be visible, and they also want to see them doing things, confidently, with purpose and toward the best path forward. Again think back to a time where you’ve seen a leader taking charge of a challenging situation.
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Did you see assertiveness? If so, what did it look? How can you take a lesson from your observations? If you didn’t see assertiveness, what could that leader have done to be more so? How might that have contributed to a better outcome? Leaders who are able to demonstrate assertiveness or what stakeholders want to see, and when they do, it helps them find confidence that leadership has the right focus and is taking action toward a solution. What the stakeholders want their high stakes leader to be during a crisis, visible, caring, empathetic, calm, and assertive. What can you do to develop your own capacity to be these things during your next crisis?
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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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