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Crisis leadership: What stakeholders need

In this article, we'll talk through the things stakeholders need from a crisis leader

There are a number of things that stakeholders want and need their crisis leaders to BE during a crisis:

BE. If you were asked to describe what a crisis leader should be during a crisis, what would you say? What should a leader be to instill confidence and deserve the trust of stakeholders? From our research, the most effective crisis leaders are:

1) Visible. Stakeholders want to see them, in front of their teams, leading the response.

2)Caring. The most effective crisis leaders are able to demonstrate a great sense of care and concern for all stakeholders.

3)Empathetic. Not only must crisis leaders care for their stakeholders, they must appreciate that some have lost or will lose a great deal as a result of the catastrophe and that their loss deserves acknowledgment and empathy.

4)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.

5)Assertive. Not only do 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.

What exactly does all of this mean? As a high stakes leader, how are you supposed to think about these responsibilities and why are they so important? Here are a few thoughts to help you process these observable behaviors that your stakeholders will be looking for in the midst of a crisis.

Being Visible.  During a crisis, the value propositions of organizational stakeholders are being threatened. This, of course, creates a great deal of concern for individual members of your stakeholder groups. Throughout the span of a crisis event, these stakeholders will be anxiously awaiting whatever information they can get to help them understand the extent of the threat, the outcome they should expect, and the amount of time they are going to have to wait before the threat has been eliminated and losses can be calculated. This is not new information, as you learned about this earlier in the course.

Only slightly less concerning to stakeholders than the anxiety created by the threat to their value propositions is a fear that the threat – and the potential damage that it may bring – has not attracted the attention of organizational leaders. When stakeholders feel threatened by something beyond their control, they will want to know that the threat is being addressed by someone or some team that should, from their perspective, have some degree of control – at least much more that they have. Not surprisingly, these stakeholders become hyper-sensitive to the appearance of an authority figure who demonstrates a clear awareness of the situation’s gravity and seems, to an adequate extent (in a purely subjective sense), committed to resolving the issue with minimum impact on their value proposition. This is what it means to Be Visible during a crisis.

Being Caring. Stakeholders want to know that organizational leaders are aware of the threat to their value propositions and that they are also committed to eliminating the threat as quickly as possible. In one sense, stakeholders don’t really care why they are committed to resolving the threat or what they have to do to resolve it. “Just make it go away”, some might think. But as this is a course that has continued to emphasize the value of stakeholder relationships, how should high stakes leaders want their stakeholders to feel about the way they are approaching a resolution of the crisis? Leaders should want their stakeholders to know that they are committed to resolving the crisis because it is in the best interests of its stakeholders. In other words, high stakes leaders should want their stakeholders to know that they genuinely care about making things right – that they genuinely care for them and recognize the stress and anxiety that has resulted, for the moment, at least, from the relationship. The most effective high stakes leaders are able to communicate, through their words and their deeds, that they recognize the emotion the situation has produced and that, because they truly care about their stakeholders, they are committed to resolving the issue as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Being Empathetic. In similar fashion to the previous description of demonstrating care for stakeholders, high stakes leaders must demonstrate empathy to their stakeholders as well. How is this different than caring? Caring for stakeholders means recognizing the unique interests of each and making a commitment that feels personal to resolving any value proposition threats that materialize. Being empathetic to stakeholders means recognizing and acknowledging that the threat has, or is likely to, result in a meaningful loss. Perhaps this loss is monetary. Perhaps it is loss of life or limb. Irrespective of the specifics, high stakes leaders must find a way to demonstrate empathy. Ideally, the expressed empathy is genuine. It should simply feel like the right thing to do. Perhaps, however, the empathy is symbolic. No value judgments here, as there are actually situations where it is appropriate to symbolically express empathy. When people suffer a loss, it is simply good form to do so. In either case, if you hope to fully regain the trust and loyalty of any stakeholder that has or will suffer a significant loss as a result of a crisis, an expression of empathy will go a long way to demonstrating that the relationship is truly important to you.

Being Calm. There are a number of reasons to stay calm during a crisis. Two that are particularly important for our purposes here are: 1) staying calm demonstrates to stakeholders that you are in control of yourself, and in so doing, you suggest that you are better prepared to take control of the situation; and 2) staying calm does actually allow you to more effectively think, process information, and make better decisions.

During a crisis, your stakeholders are going to be anxious. As stated earlier in the course, during a crisis, people (stakeholders) are looking for tangible evidence of leadership. They want and need leaders that they can trust – that they can believe in. What characteristics are you looking for when searching for someone that you can believe in? If you are like most people, you want to see a leader who is calm, who appears confident, who seems totally focused on helping everyone around him or her feel less stressed, less anxious. The importance of this should not be minimized. When stakeholders see a calm high stakes leader, they will be much more likely to trust that progress is being made toward resolving the issue and restoring their confidence.

There is a great deal of science behind the detrimental effects of allowing a situation to produce a state of distress – a condition in which mental and physical performance is reduced – sometimes to the degree that a person is literally unable to perform anything other than basic life support functions. There has also been a great deal of recent science dedicated to the condition of eustress. This is a state of heightened alertness, mental and physiological performance, and energy. During a crisis, there will always be sufficient stimuli to reach a state of eustress. The key is to not allow those stimuli to overwhelm you to the point of distress. A good habit when exposed to the kind of environment typical of a crisis is to remember that you can only control those things that you are able to control. This won’t remove stimuli from your immediate vicinity, but it will allow you to regain as sense of control over how you respond to those stimuli.

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A little stress can actually help you perform better. Just make sure that you remember that too much stress will inhibit your performance. Preparation, a good plan, and a strong supporting team will do wonders for helping high stakes leaders stay calm during a crisis.

Being Assertive. Assertiveness is a characteristic that deserves an explanation. At first thought, it may not be clear why assertiveness is so important and why stakeholders will be looking for it. But it is a very important trait that high stakes leaders will want to demonstrate during a crisis.

Assertiveness is a characteristic that falls between the extremes of passiveness and aggressiveness. It demonstrates a balance between being overly passive and giving the impression of being submissive, on one end of the spectrum, and being overly aggressive and being perceived as hostile, on the other. Assertiveness is the ability to demonstrate a healthy confidence in knowing the right things to do – to stand up for one’s self in the face of adversity. Assertive leaders are direct and honest. They make it clear what they want and need from others to ensure the necessary actions are taken in a given situation.

Assertive leaders don’t expect others to read their minds. When they want or need something, they say so. When they disagree with someone or something, they speak up. Assertive leaders stay calm and they typically demonstrate body language that’s very consistent with the messages they are delivering with their voices. Assertive leaders maintain eye contact; they confidently lean in to their conversations; and they speak simply and directly. These are the attributes of an assertive leader – and they are what stakeholders are looking for in their crisis leaders.

These are the five observable characteristics that stakeholders want their leaders to BE during a crisis. How effectively do you demonstrate these attributes and what can you do to improve in each and every one of them?

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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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