Strong leadership can make the difference between a crisis that damages your reputation irrevocably, and one that you recover and learn from.
A leader’s role during a crisis should include six areas: setting the strategy for the crisis; setting the standard for behaviour; decision-making; bringing clarity to the chaos; and setting the course for recovery.
At the start of a crisis, a good leader will set the strategy for the crisis. Think about (and communicate) what outcome you want to see. How do you want people to think of the organisation in a year’s time? What will success look like, and how will you measure it?
Goals around brand recovery time may be easier to monitor with things like sentiment analysis, share price, measuring loyalty and monitoring the number of returning customers. When teams know what outcome their leader expects to see, one, three or six months down the line, it helps inform all their decisions during the crisis.
Leaders set the standards for how to deal with the crisis. A good leader will create the right environment for everyone in the company to communicate openly.
When under attack, or facing criticism, often one of our first instincts is to find someone or something to blame.
But it isn’t a great thing to do during a crisis.
Get involved in the blame game, and your team is suddenly mired in anxiety and tension. “Did I do something wrong?” / “Well, what do you expect from X department?” etc. It makes people defensive. And that can mean people hide the true facts of the situation. If someone thinks they’ll be attacked for speaking out, they may choose to keep quiet.
A leader can change this by making it clear that they are not concerned (at this stage) with laying the blame at anyone’s door, but focused instead on how to fix the problem. That sets the standard for open and transparent communication early on.
Leaders need to make difficult decisions under pressure – even when they don’t have all of the information they need.
It can be hard to pin down the facts straight away, but a leader’s role is to see the overall picture and develop options for action. Multiple options are important. If you only have one option in front of you, it will look like the best one.
In order to come up with good options, you need to consult the right people. A leader will bring together different people to consult, from across the business. They should be as close to those affected by the crisis as possible (for example, customer service teams) so they bring a different perspective. And include those who will be part of the execution plan.
A crisis usually involves a level of chaos. A strong leader will bring clarity to that chaos, communicating their strategy clearly to their team, and bringing perspective and context to the crisis.
To do that, the leader needs to ask the right questions of the right people. They also need to pause, and make time to think, or to ‘quiet their mind,’ an expression leadership coach and author Mark Fritz uses. He says: “A quiet mind is able to hear its own inspiration and ideas,” something that can only be achieved if you give yourself space to think.
5. Setting the course for recovery
A recovery plan usual relies on rebuilding trust – with customers, stakeholders and employees. Every crisis plan should include a recovery plan to rebuild the company’s reputation.
It can be tempting, once the crisis is over, to think that the hard work is behind you. But in fact, it’s really just starting. Now is the time to take action to ensure the crisis can’t happen again, and to rebuild the organisation’s reputation.
All good leadership is underpinned by a strong and resilient team, and at all stages of the crisis a leader will ensure their team is looked after. A crisis can be relentless and exhausting – and without the right leadership, demoralising. A leader during a crisis is like a General on a battlefield. If they are indecisive, panicked or unprepared for the fight that lies ahead, the teams on the frontlines won’t be effective, no matter how resilient they are.