There are five leadership lessons that I learnt leading International Crisis teams that still guide me in my leadership roles today.
While I am not working in crisis anymore (well not the scale of thousands of people dying type crisis) we don’t have to be in a crisis for the lessons to be of relevance. Crisis is just the critical testing ground for leadership.
When I reflect on crisis or disaster situations I have been involved in across the globe, the most common ingredient to what is unfolding is speed. The speed at how quickly the situation evolves, changes and the demands on the leaders to respond and make decisions. Everything is happening quickly. Opportunities come and go, decisions are needed and expectations are high. The demand for answers and outcomes, the demands on leaders are unlike any other situation I have experienced. So what are the five key ingredients that we can safely say if they work in a crisis response are likely to be of value in leading our teams and organisations?
My five key default responses are:
- Simplicity; and
No surprise the first is Speed. When there is an opportunity, when there is a gap in the market so often it is the first to move that will hold that position of leadership. If you wait until you have all of the answers to all of the questions – before you move, someone will beat you to it. Clarity comes with action, the more you do the clearer you will become. In the immediate aftermath of a crisis there is no time for working parties, focus groups or steering committees, the demand is for a leader who takes action. You don’t have to have all of the answers you do need to take action.
The second might be a surprise but it is Sensitivity. This might seem a contradiction to the first response of speed, but you can absolutely make decisions, and in times of crisis lead with sensitivity. Change upsets people, most of us like a level of consistency, so when we are dealing with significant change if we can understand the likely resistance and deal with that prior to implementing change then we have a far better chance of being successful in what we are trying to achieve as leaders. Sensitivity to change will allow us to bring people along the journey with us. When you are sensitive to the implications of what you are doing, when you give information, you will get understanding. We might not be able to remove the impact but we can elicit understanding by leading with sensitivity.
The third is Structure. Acting with speed doesn’t mean that we act without caution or recklessly. We need a structure to guide us and often to comply with regulations or legislation. However, we often impose too much structure and over complicate our tasks. Creating too much structure takes away the creativity and imagination of our teams. It says we don’t trust you to make the right decision so we are going to tell you how to do it. The more policy and procedures we put in place the more opportunities we are creating for non compliance. We need to find the balance.
Simplicity is my fourth response. In times of crisis or disaster we need our leaders to make decisions and make decisions without undue deliberation. The time to send the tough decisions off to a focus group or working party are gone. If we act with good integrity, good intent, if we consult where we can and make a decision but get it wrong, we will be forgiven. However, we don’t forgive our leaders who fail to make decisions for the fear of making the wrong decision. By keeping it simple, by accepting the responsibility we have been entrusted with as leaders enables us to respond and keep moving. If we get it wrong, acknowledge it, redress and go again. Making a wrong decision just means we will be closer to getting it right than having not moved in the first place.
And my final and most important of the five is Presence. We don’t expect all of our leaders to have all of the answers all of the time. But we do expect them to care and we do expect them to understand the challenges we are facing, and the best way for our teams and communities we are leading to believe in us, is to see us. Too many leaders underestimate the significance of their presence, too many leaders spend too much time behind a keyboard thinking if they can be across all of the information they will have all of the answers. Of course that’s valuable but that is not going to build your following, that doesn’t instil confidence in your leadership, particularly in times of crisis if you are not seen. If you want to be closer to the teams that you lead, the clients you have or the clients you desire, spend time with them.
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More about Peter
Investigating homicides, leading international teams into scenes of crisis and disaster is not your normal path to global keynote speaker and business consultant. It was this unique path that provided insights into leadership which are so different yet offer relevant reflections and learnings to businesses facing change, growth or challenges of their own.
Peter worked in countries following major crisis including Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. His grounding came from two decades as a forensic investigator that saw him unravel the mysteries and discover the secrets of criminals thought rested solely with them. But it was the work in Thailand that brought the biggest change.