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What Crisis Leaders Must Do

What Crisis Leaders Must Do
Let’s spend a few minutes considering what crisis leaders must do during a crisis. Well, there are literally hundreds of books and thousands of articles both scholarly and practitioner that provide recommendations to crisis leaders for optimum behaviors and actions during a crisis. I found these four elements to offer a great foundation for your own development as a high stakes leader. What must leaders do during a crisis? They must communicate. Make decisions with limited information, take responsibility and engage stakeholders. Let’s take a brief look at each one of these actions. Crisis leaders must do what they can to ensure effective communication. Yes, ideally these leaders are great communicators as well.
But we’ve all seen great leadership from those who may not be the best or most compelling public speakers. During a crisis, stakeholders are anxious and they need to hear clear, compelling, consistent and reliable communication. In fact, given what we know about the nature of the crisis environment and the different media modes and frequencies of communication that is necessary during a crisis situation. In many ways it doesn’t matter that the particular individual on the leadership team is a spectacular individual communicator or speaker. This is normally a core competence of a senior leader. But in a crisis, communication isn’t about individual communication skills. It’s about effective communication from the organization to its stakeholders.
That said, every high stake leader must be able to assemble the necessary resources and ensure that they’re focused on effective communication. As we know from our understanding of stakeholders value propositions ,our communications must do what they can do to address the anxiety of stakeholders, the nature of the threat to their value to the propositions, the plan to resolve the threats, and expectations stakeholders should have to recover lost value and lost faith in the organization. Beyond this, communication should include the appropriate care and empathy, and they should be distributed through the preferred channels of the different stakeholder groups.
One soundbite about communication that’s always stuck with me because it was constantly reiterated by my brother Dave, who was a fellow co founder, president and eventually CEO of JetBlue Airways was this. When you’re absolutely certain that you have communicated enough, triple the effort, because you’re only a third of the way there. I’ve always loved that quote, mostly because I’ve yet to see the practical reality of this statement be disproven. A crisis leader is simply going to have to make decisions with limited information with less certainty and less confidence than they would like. It’s not hard to see why this is the case. It’s simply a function of the crisis environment. In a crisis, new information is always coming in.
Leaders are constantly learning more about the situation. And as this new information contributes to new insights, new and different decisions will have to be made. There are two universal truths about decision making during a crisis. The first is that to have any chance of making progress toward a resolution crisis leaders are going to have to make decisions that they are uncomfortable making. This discomfort will largely be a function of limited information and the lack of a clear picture of what has already happened, what is happening now and what is going to happen in the future. Nonetheless, decisions are going to have to be made.
Universal truth number two is that most of these decisions will have to be reversed or modified as new insights are learned. This is not going to be comfortable, and it may appear to threaten the credibility of the leader who made the decisions in the first place. How does a leader deal with this tension? Be as transparent as you can with what you know, when you know it, and your understanding of the situation at the time of the decisions. If decisions must be made early in a crisis, make it clear that there is much yet to be learned. When decisions need to be modified, be transparent and share some detail about what has been learned to warrant the change.
It’s not rocket science, but it’s not natural for most leaders to speak and make decisions about situations where so little is known. It’s a skill that high stakes leaders must develop to be effective in their crisis leadership roles. The final two things that a crisis leader must be prepared to do are take responsibility and engage stakeholders. I’m not going to expand much on the notion of engaging stakeholders because it’s been a foundational element of this course. Engage your stakeholders throughout the crisis. Help them understand that you care, that you’re empathetic to their situation, and that you’re doing everything that you can to keep them apprised of progress toward the best possible solution.
In terms of responsibility, I’ll say this, a course on high stakes leadership has been taught at Michigan Ross for over 40 years. A core element of the course all along has been the weekly inclusion of executive guests, most of them chief executive officers. At some point in every class session, the question is asked of the visiting executive, what is one thing that you would have done differently during a crisis that you wish you could go back and do over if given the opportunity? In almost every case, the answer has been something along the lines of I wish that we would have taken responsibility earlier. There will be great pressure put on crisis leaders to avoid taking responsibility.
And exposing the company to liability. Particularly if there isn’t absolute clarity regarding who was actually at fault. And I’m not suggesting that you should ever admit to doing something that you didn’t do. This would put the company at great risk for no reason. Don’t do that. But when you know that a member of the team was responsible, or you know that the company played a significant role in a crisis, own it, that’s what our executives have consistently said they wish they would have done. So I’ll echo their admission here. Take responsibility when you should. It’s the right move. During a crisis stakeholders want to see four actions from their leaders, four things they want and need to see them do.
Communicate, make decisions with complete or limited information. Take responsibility as soon as it’s appropriate to do so, and engage your stakeholders. Do these well, and you’ll find that your high stakes leadership efforts will have the greatest probability of success.
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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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