When the going gets tough, it’s the way leaders act in a crisis that makes the difference. Because it’s not so much about what has happened, but the way we respond to it what matters. Here, leadership plays a role of utmost importance, because it coins the way a company is perceived by the public. We live and act in a world where three-thirds of all news spread globally within one hour. There are no more hidden spaces, smartphones and their cameras are ubiquitous. Events and opinions are spread with a high level of emotions and often little or no reflection. The public is vigilant, critical and social (in the word’s sense). We are keenly judged by the way we perform during a crisis. This can turn out as a nightmare for every company leader and will be a tough challenge for his communications director.
I went through a bunch of articles on the topics (see list below). Here’s what I think is fundamental advice for corporate and communication leaders in order to navigate adverse situations and come out with a reputation less harmed:
- Plans are useless. Planning is indispensable.
Plans only hold until the first contact with the enemy. This quote by Prussian war strategist Clausewitz says it all. Plans help you to get out of the first state of shock and survive the first hours, but to rely on them alone would be a mistake. The process of planning though helps a company to develop crisis awareness, understand their risks and build resilience during a crisis. It’s a leadership role to push this process in his or her corporation.
- Define reality.
The leader has to look at a situation, evaluate what its significance is for the company he leads and to articulate his finding to his troops. A crisis is not the time for sugar coating. Denial of a crisis or hope that it may go away is not a strategy. It may rather turn out as an expensive mistake.
- Ask the right questions.
The first question which comes to our minds almost instinctively in a crisis is “what do we do now?” After the first emergency measures, a good leader rather devotes resources to answer the question: “what is the problem?” This prevents us from missing the big picture, overlooking the true reasons for a crisis and for running into the wrong direction in our response and communication efforts. Cleaning up this mess afterward will bring you in a very defensive and reactive state of affairs.
- Make your organization agile.
Companies are not used to handle crises. We manufacture and sell cars, chocolate bars, package vacations or create financial products for their clients. The task of a leader in a full-blown crisis is to transform a corporation into crisis mode in an instant. Both, mentally and practically. What it takes here are simple protocols, clear processes, and flat hierarchies. They allow us to focus on the important aspects and to respond swiftly and without underlying chaos. They are the main drivers for agility.
- Lead visibly.
A crisis is not the time to bunker in meeting rooms or manage from your desk. Good leaders go to the middle of the action: They speak to an upset workforce, they visit an accident site and they tackle the ambush of the media. Action without visibility equals inactivity. Especially in today’s world. By dismissing this approach as “self-marketing” or “showing off” in catastrophic times (something often raised when a leader shows at a disaster zone with rolled-up sleeves) we ignore the impact that visual leadership has on those affected: by showing that we are in control, we give confidence to victims. By caring about their fates, we show empathy.
- Be prepared to make mistakes.
Crises require a lot of assessment and decision-making at a high pace. Inevitably, not all decisions made under uncertainty and pressure will be right. Being prepared to making mistakes is part of the mental toolkit a good leader should bring into a crisis.
- Own up to a crisis.
While guilt may be discussed at a later stage in courtrooms, the public court rules immediately and based on the evidence they receive. Does a company display that it is responsible for making things right?! Do they do what they can do to fix the situation? Owning up to a crisis is the first step towards restoration of a bruised reputation.
- Role, role, role!
Leaders must be aware of what their role is and where they can add the most value. It’s tempting to get lost in the nitty-gritty stuff, dwell on wordings in press releases and hide in lengthy meetings. True leaders pick the right people to manage a crisis, and then get out of their way and look at the big picture, instead. Taking the world off your shoulders is important, as no one can be all in one. Unless you’re Batman, that is.
- Listen to unpopular advice.
More than else when during a crisis we tend towards group-thinking. That’s how NASA’s Challenger got into trouble. Big company failures often root in a culture which does not allow unpopular or controversial advice. It’s a fundamental mistake to ignore the outside views and to not make use of the resources you have in your management teams.
- Make those affected part of the solution.
Good leaders empower and encourage people to become part of the solution. Especially if companies navigate through rough waters, the staff is often longing for getting involved. Customers want to receive guidance on how to deal with a defect product.
It may occur to you that most of this advice does also apply to “normal times”. I would agree. But in a crisis, our words, gestures, decisions, and actions are under a magnifying glass, carefully observed by a vigilant, wary and critical audience. That’s when there is little room for fundamentally wrong decisions.
As a bonus, here’s another advice which I think is worth the consideration: Never let a crisis go to waste! Crises allow changes not possible in normal times. Crises are times when people develop super-powers. And above all, crises are times during which you can demonstrate that you and your company are capable to master a really difficult situation.
The following articles have been reviewed:
- John Baldoni: How a good leader reacts to a crisis
- Gordon Meriwether: Leadership in crisis
- Pat Rowe: Great Crisis Leaders
as well as the book The Communicators by Richard Levick and Charles Slack.