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