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What Is Crisis for High Stakes Leaders?

In this article, we explore the definition of crisis for high stakes leaders and the management of expectations.

A brief exploration of the Deepwater Horizon crisis provided an opportunity to appreciate the challenges of understanding the full spectrum of stakeholders that could be impacted by a crisis. As you will learn during this course, the ability to identify and engage stakeholders during a crisis is one of the most important and valuable skills a high stakes leader can possess. The reason for this can be drawn from the very definition of a crisis, which can tell crisis leaders a great deal about the purpose of stakeholder engagement.

There are many definitional variations of the term crisis. For high stakes leaders, this definition can be particularly informative:

crisis noun cri·sis ˈkrī-səs : an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome

Two very important messages can be taken from this definition. The first is that the situation at hand – the crisis – is going to create an environment that will not be pleasant for anyone involved. Both inside and outside of the organization, there will be a growing sense of anxiety that has the potential to last for an extended period of time. For those impacted by the events as they run their course, there will be increasing concern about how the crisis will lead to change—about how things will be different in the wake of the catastrophe. This foreboding sense of change for the worse will make it nearly impossible for members of the organization to do anything other than worry about what the future may bring. Things will be different – and people don’t like the thought of things being different—particularly when they are unable to predict with confidence what lies ahead. “What will things look like once this is all over?” they will wonder. “I have a sense that things will be different, very different.”

The second key message from this definition is there is a very high possibility that the future won’t only be different, but that it will also be worse. Nobody likes the idea of uncertainty in their future. We all recognize that we can’t predict the future, but all things being normal, we have a certain degree of confidence in our expectations that today will be very similar to yesterday. In today’s VUCA world, there is calming sense of predictability in the notion that “I made it through yesterday, so I should be able to make it through today.” But the crisis environment removes this element of predictability. There isn’t a calming sense of normalcy. The ongoing crisis tells us that not only won’t we be able to confidently predict how today or tomorrow will play out, but it’s very likely that however it plays out, it won’t be good.

For all stakeholders impacted by a crisis – not just those inside and organization, but all stakeholders, inside and out – a crisis creates anxiety about the unpredictability of the future. It also raises questions about who has his/her/their hands on the wheel and is going to provide leadership. This is why high stakes leaders must understand and remember these three universal truths about stakeholder expectations during a crisis:

1) In a crisis, People will look to leaders for tangible evidence of leadership

2) When they look, they want and need leaders that they can believe in

3) People don’t expect their leaders to be perfect or omniscient, but they do expect them to be visible, courageous, and committed to the best possible path forward.

Let’s take a moment to consider each of these truths.

In a crisis, People will look to leaders for tangible evidence of leadership. Because stakeholders will be anxious about the uncertainty and likelihood of an undesirable outcome, they will want to see that someone, or some team, has stepped up to lead. Of course, they will hope that this leader or leadership team will immediately resolve the issue and that things can quickly return to normal. But they will recognize that the developing situation will take a while to resolve. Given this recognition, they will want to see tangible evidence that leadership is taking place.

Take a minute to consider what tangible evidence of leadership looks like from your perspective. Put yourself in the shoes of a member of any organizational stakeholder group and imagine what that person would want to see from a high stakes leader during a crisis. Later in this course, you will learn some very specific characteristics that leaders should demonstrate in a crisis situation. For now, however, think about what you would want to see as tangible evidence of leadership, and then expand those expectations to a small number of different organizational stakeholders. The vision(s) you produce as a result of this thought experiment will illustrate why stakeholders will look to leaders for signs of leadership.

When they look, they want and need leaders that they can believe in. In addition to being able to identify evidence of leadership, people (stakeholders) will want and need to see leaders who are demonstrating actions that appear worthy of their trust. The situation has created tension and anxiety. People are concerned about their lack of control and the unpredictability of the future. They don’t simply want to see leaders taking random action, they want to see leaders taking action that demonstrates an appreciation for their specific interests. Stakeholders want and need to believe that crisis leaders understand how the situation is impacting them and that their interests are being served through their actions. While this nuance may be quite subtle, it should be clear why leaders must behave in ways that demonstrate a clear commitment to stakeholders and their interests.

People don’t expect their leaders to be perfect or omniscient, but they do expect them to be visible, courageous, and committed to the best possible path forward. The concepts underlying this statement will be explored in depth later in this course. For now, however, high stakes leaders must understand that while some stakeholders will behave irrationally during a crisis, most will recognize that fully resolving a crisis takes time, in some cases, a great deal of time. While stakeholders will hope for miracle solutions, they will expect steady progress. Stakeholders would prefer that crisis leaders were perfect and all-knowing, but they know, at the end of the day, that we are all human beings, doing our best to serve the interests of a broad range of stakeholders.

High stakes leaders should recognize, however, that all of these “reasonable” expectations must be reinforced frequently to preserve stakeholder confidence. This is why even the most rational stakeholders will quickly revise their expectations if they are not seeing leaders stepping up, taking charge of the situation, and clearly demonstrating a commitment to the best possible path forward.

These universal truths of stakeholder expectations during a crisis are useful concepts for every high stakes leader to remember. Crisis leadership is hard. Situations will be tense, anxious, unpredictable, and will often span a significant period of time. To make the best of these very challenging times, leaders must be willing and able to step up and provide tangible leadership, worthy of stakeholder trust, with a clear commitment to everyone’s best interests. You won’t ever be flawless in your high stakes leadership role, but knowing what your stakeholders expect can be quite helpful as you put forth your best efforts.

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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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