Oh Crap…! Leading in a Crisis

We have all had those days – when the crap hits the fan and we are leading in a crisis.  Some of my examples when leading organisations have been:  A soldier accidentally shooting himself in the leg when training on the range; getting called at two in the morning and told we need 100 troops in a foreign country urgently; three soldiers held in jail in a foreign country; getting called late in the evening to be told one staff member has attempted to murder another staff member; having a legal challenge to our brand, having a key staff member hospitalised in ICU; an accident occurring on one of our construction sites; or a complaint about the conduct of one of my team with a customer – yes I have had a few.  Yours might be the tragic loss of a key staff member, a health and safety incident where someone has been injured; a quality issue with a product affecting your brand reputation; or the loss of a key supplier or a key account.  No matter what the issue, they can quickly consume your business leadership focus, and if you aren’t prepared it can be a severe distraction.  So how do we deal with it better?

The interesting thing is that many of these types of issues are predictable, maybe not exactly how it will occur, but in each of our businesses we should be able to generally predict the type of incident as part of our SWOT when considering Threats or Risks – yes even soldiers getting in trouble is pretty predictable.  For each of our threats or risks we should then ask ourselves what is the likelihood of that happening and what would the likely impact be?  We should then be able to develop a mitigation strategy to reduce the likelihood of something happening eg a stakeholder management plan to regularly meet and discuss issues with key accounts, and suppliers so what we strengthen relationships and have our finger on the pulse.  Or it might be training understudies and creating desk files for a handover in absentia so that someone can step up if a key person is lost for any reason.

The other thing we should do is to have some contingency plans for those things that might just happen anyway such as: a health and safety incident management plan and practice it, as to who does what and how; or a PR communications plan for a product quality or brand incident already developed and practised.  This recognises that you can develop an outline plan when you are rational or ‘blue brain’ thinking, so that when the incident happens you your brain naturally flips to ‘red brain’ more irrational ‘fight or flight’ mode, you can take a deep breath, pull out the plan you have previously developed and see the basis of how to start dealing with the incident or issue from a rational perspective.  The critical minutes and hours faster in responding with greater  focus and clarity as a result, will be very powerful.

Importantly, it will help you to have less of an ‘oh s@#* moment’, have a meltdown, throw a tantrum, throw something, spin out of control, or go quiet and disappear ‘into your cave’ (I have seen or heard people do all of the aforementioned).  This is when leaders need to come to the fore and be seen to be calm, collected and in control, and even if you aren’t – you need to be like a duck on water.  This prior thinking will allow you to put on a brave leadership face and look like you are all over it. ‘Run to the problem’.  Get your best leaders around you, get the facts of the situation, work the solution, communicate and lead.  Your people need to know ‘you have got this’.  You can also then say ‘we anticipated this …..and have done…..already’.

Don’t wait for the next incident or crisis before you start doing some thinking about contingency planning.  And if you do have an incident, when things become calm after dealing with it – get the team together and capture the lessons that you have learnt and update the plan.

And just think about this, in my experience when the oh crap moment happens – remember ‘if no-one is shooting at you – it is a good day’ and you will get through it.

Greg is a Strategic Adviser at Advisory.Works

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