Leadership In A Crisis – Are You Prepared?

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve had a conversation with someone about what makes a good leader.  Not necessarily a great leader, but just a good, solid leader.  Today, there seems to be fewer and fewer.  I’m not sure why that is, but I speculate a few of the many reasons might include society’s willingness to accept management over leadership (yes, there is a difference) and fewer opportunities for focused leadership development.  Most aren’t born as leaders.  Like good wine, good leaders have to develop over time.

Having worked in the private sector throughout my career, I have always appreciated good leadership.  You know, those individuals that made you feel good about pushing yourself harder than what you thought you could so that you accomplished more than what you dreamed possible.  And, you eagerly came back for more.  Like you, I’ve had the pleasure of working for a few good leaders in my time (few is the operative word). 

In a “business as usual” environment, organizations have time to select and develop leaders.  They are afforded the luxury of time which allows them the opportunity to carefully observe the talent pool for potential leaders.  Time also allows them the opportunity to allow potential leaders to grow and develop through both experience and training.  Over time, some will develop into not only good but great leaders.  Others, will realize, or be recognized, as formidable managers, but not leaders.

But, what about leadership in a crisis?  At no time is good, solid leadership more important than during a crisis.  When things are bad, someone has to step in and bring order out of chaos.  Could that be you?

For a leader, a crisis can serve as his or her defining moment.  It’s these moments that reflect what leaders stand for and why they chose to lead. It’s at that point that a leader can put all of their experience, compassion, energy, and drive into practice and really make a difference.  A crisis pushes leaders to their limits and tests whether they will be able to hold true to their beliefs under the toughest of circumstances.  When handled appropriately, crisis can be a valuable opportunity for long-term success.  Decisions made in critical or challenging situations not only shapes and defines a leader; they also inform others about who the leader is as a person and a leader.

Solid leadership does make a difference, in both business-as-usual and in a crisis.  Without it, goals cannot be achieved, nor can progress be attained, but becoming an exceptional leader isn’t easy.  It takes hard work, perseverance, and a sincere willingness to work with people.  All are ingredients for exceptional leadership.  As leaders we must remember that our teams can be both the greatest asset and the biggest liability for the organization.  Having the right people gives leaders and their teams, and by extension the organization, the best chance to be successful.

In an effort to better understand leadership in a crisis, I recently interviewed twelve individuals that work in public safety jobs (law enforcement or fire service) and have attained a senior management position that carries a “Chief” title (i.e. Chief, Assistant Chief, or Deputy Chief).  From those interviews, I uncovered the following key traits of good leadership in a crisis:

  • Just because you’re a good manager doesn’t mean you are destine to be a good leader.  Leaders need time to develop.  They start out as managers and gain experience in several key areas including interpersonal skills and communications, operational knowledge, and strategic thinking and decision making.
  • Leaders see the big picture.  Their experience has taught them how to look past the immediate, avoiding a myopic view.  To do so otherwise could cost lives.  When needed, they solicit information from other sources and use it to effectively develop the “landscape view” of the situation.
  • Leaders communicate effectively.  They know who their stakeholders are … up, down, and across.  Their messaging is timely, consistent, and appropriate for the receiver.
  • Leaders make the tough decisions.  They lead with integrity and are prepared to make decisions that may not be the most popular but are necessary for the greater good.  From their big picture view, they can process the information at hand in a timely manner and make calculated decisions that in turn drive action.  They also solicit continual validation of progress.  If things don’t go as planned, leaders stand ready with a Plan B … and a Plan C.
  • Leaders bring calm to stressful situations.   Sometimes this happens using just the tone of their voice and pace of their speech to help put people at ease.  They display confidence in themselves and those that they lead.  They are like a duck swimming on a pond.  From above the water the duck looks relaxed and calm just gliding across the water.  But look underneath and its feet are paddling a mile a minute.
  • A good leader knows the strengths and weaknesses of his/her people and how to effectively use them in a “time sensitive” environment.  A leader also creates environments that encourage followers to succeed.  Leaders recognize the value of people and what they bring to the team.  They surround themselves with talented people.  They empower them and give them the latitude to perform.  They also recognize that if individuals don’t develop and grow, the team doesn’t develop or grow.

So, are you someone that can lead in a crisis?

TIP:  Take a look at the Society of Information Management (SIM) – Regional Leadership Forum (RLF) Booklist (www.simnet.org/?page=RLF_BookList ) for great suggestions of books to read related to “leadership”.

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