Preparing leaders for a crisis takes more than media training

Bench saying 'take a little time to think'

I’ve worked with a lot of leadership teams to help them prepare for a crisis, often running simulation exercises alongside their communications teams or PR agencies.

When I first talk to the PR and comms teams, their focus is often on media training. How will their leader perform on Today, or Sky News?

But that’s just one element (albeit a very public one!) of how a leader will be judged through a crisis. There are, arguably more important things to think about. How they make decisions under pressure, for example, or how they set the strategy for what they want to achieve. Whether they’re surrounding themselves with the right people, and whether they’re taking decisive action that will help them recover from the crisis. And how they’re bringing their team along with them.

A crisis will be extremely stressful for a leader, and can have a major impact not just on the business but on them personally. They could lose their jobs (and many do: Equifax CEO Richard Smith in 2017 after a cyber attack; Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf in 2016 after the bank was discovered to be opening fraudulent accounts; TSB’s CEO Paul Pester in 2018 after several serious IT outages; Rio Tinto’s CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques in 2020 after a shareholder revolt in response to blasts at a 46,000-year-old site in Western Australia).

Good leaders in a crisis have some common traits:

  • They have a clear vision that the organisation follows. People need to believe in the direction the organisation is going, particularly in a crisis
  • They are good decision makers, even under pressure, and they take decisive (but considered) action. That means having the right people around them, including diverse thinkers who are closest to the people impacted by the crisis. Too often I see the leadership team managing a crisis on their own, without actually talking to the people who are close to customers, for example
  • They think strategically about the consequences of their action in the long-term, not the short-term. That means thinking months or years ahead, not days
  • They lead by example and set the standards for behaviour by the rest of the organisation. If a leader doesn’t take responsibility for their actions, why should anyone else?
  • They have empathy(they don’t just talk about understanding, they make attempts to actually understand)
  • They’re clear and articulate
  • They’re calm and consistent, but not detached
  • They listen.

Doing all that under pressure is tough, and it’s really important whoever is leading the organization through the crisis has the capacity to keep making good decisions with a clear head. That means taking regular breaks, getting enough sleep, staying well – physically and mentally – and finding the space to quieten their minds (an expression leadership coach and author Mark Fritz used when I was talking to him about leadership and crisis management).

So, when you’re thinking about prepping a leader for a crisis, think beyond media training. Prepare decision trees, build relationships with the right people across the organisation, create action-based plans in line with your values, and test how they respond under pressure in a simulation or other as-live environment.

And find a quiet room. It turns out one of the best things we can do to prep a leader for a crisis is to create the space for them to think. They’ll make better decisions as a result.

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