What a crisis can teach you about your leadership

A crisis will face most of you at some point – whether you’re the chief executive of an entire organisation, or whether you a team supervisor in a call centre. When it does happen, at the end of it all, you’ll be remembered for how you led the situation.

I’ve experienced a few myself, when I led various services – floods and fires being the two that spring to mind! Whilst I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, in the calm after the storm I was able to see the fantastic learning opportunity presented by the crisis.

Here’s what I learned:

Make clear the rules of the game – in a crisis, the normal policies, processes and ways of doing things go out the window. Your job as leader is to quickly set the new parameters and communicate this clearly to your team. It’s to shine a light through the mess. This includes decision making and approval processes. In a crisis, speed is everything and if you work in a hierarchical organisation you need to strip out unnecessary bureaucracy. Make clear what needs to come through you and what can circumvent you.

Identify the other leaders in your team – I’m not necessarily referring to team managers who report in to you in the traditional hierarchy (although they should all, of course, be stepping up). I’m talking about those team members who are solution-oriented, confident and who others look to.  Work closely with them and give them specific responsibilities during a crisis. Not only is this a great learning opportunity for you, it’s a brilliant one for them as well.  In the words of Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York during 9/11, “It is in times of crisis that good leaders emerge.” These people are like gold. Treat them as the precious commodity they are.

Increase your role modelling 1000% – if you are of the mindset that leadership is a position, an entitlement and where you remain in your office (if you have one) then this post is not for you. In a crisis, you need to roll your sleeves up and dig in with your team. If you are not putting in the hours then why the hell should your staff? I remember during the floods of 2014 where I had about 4 hours sleep in the first 36 hours of the crisis. Whilst I’m not necessarily advocating no sleep, what this did do is encouraged all staff to go the extra mile. Not only are you the leader of the service or department, you are one of the team during a crisis. If there is a staff rota during the crisis period, you need to be on it – not just managing it.

It’s the little things that matter – by this, I mean things like buying your team coffee, doughnuts and fruit when they’re working through the night. Being diligent and with a hawk-eye, spotting that member of staff who is on their knees and taking over from them, so they can have a break. It’s about having and encouraging a well-placed sense of humour during the tough times (humour is an amazing energizer).  It’s thanking people for specific things they do at the time. And then thanking them again more formally once the crisis is over. If you think you don’t have the time to do all of this during a crisis then, I’m sorry, but you’re in the wrong role.

Look after yourself – remember on an aircraft where the flight assistant reminds you to put your oxygen mask on first before putting it on vulnerable members of your group? The same rings true for you during a crisis. You are no good to your team, your customers, your organisation if you collapse. So eat properly,  drink lots of water, get enough rest and have trusted colleagues who you can let off steam with. And if you’ve done all the other things outlined, then your team will also look out for you because they know you’re doing the same for them.

If you’ve led during a crisis, what are the things you learned? Share in the comments section and you’ll help others benefit from your experience.

*****

Hayley Lewis is a chartered psychologist and lecturer on the Masters in Organisational Psychology at City, University of London. She has held various leadership roles covering services including organisational development, ICT, customer services and communications. Hayley is the founder of HALO Psychology – a consultancy delivering services including leadership coaching and team facilitation.

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