What’s  different about leadership in a crisis as opposed to any other time ?

The characteristics of effective leadership are the same in normal times as they are during a crisis. The difference is that during a crisis there is a temptation for leaders to do too much, to get over involved, to become to narrowly focused and neglect their role in anticipating the challenges further down the road. 


A recent article in the Harvard Business Review identified the tendency in a crisis to over manage and under lead. ( March 25 2020). 


For leaders who have risen up through an organization or in a single industry, managing a crisis can feel thrilling. The trap is that you’re often returning to your operational comfort zone. Your adrenaline spikes as decisions are made and actions are taken. You experience a feeling of adding tangible value. 


In reality you are micro managing, doing the jobs of others who are probably better positioned, undermining their ability to make decisions with the risk that you will become overwhelmed resulting in delays in decision making and confusion about responsibilities. The focus on the present means no one is thinking ahead so the organisation will be underprepared and ill equipped when the crisis is over. 


There are different types of crisis that a local authority leader /chief executive may face during their career. We are currently dealing with a global pandemic but more often the crisis is more localised. As part of the emergency planning team every so often we would meet in the nuclear bunker underneath County Hall to work through a major incident with are colleagues from emergency services. I remember on one such occasion the scenario was a passenger plan crash landing on the motorway whilst trying to make an emergency landing at the nearby international airport. I remember the fuel crisis and the lengths we had to go to maintain support to vulnerable people when there was no petrol for careers cars.  In more recent times local authorities have had to respond to sever flooding, power blackouts, terrorist bomb attacks, the Grenfell tower block  fire and child sex abuse rings. 


Leaders need to be decisive, they need to be strategic, they need to help people understand the plan and their part in it but in a crisis it is even more important to be visible and to address people’s anxiety and fear. This is best achieved by not attempting to down play the seriousness of the situation but providing reassurance that effective  measures are in place to deal with this crisis. This will be a lot easier if the leader has a track record that has established their integrity and earned the trust of staff, partner agencies and the wider community. 



Blair Mcpherson former Director ,author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk 

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