Preparing for Crisis Leadership

The academic community is not exempt from crises. If you have been involved in academia for any length of time you have most likely already been impacted by a crisis or will be. We might define crisis in other terms such as a disaster, emergency, or incident. What you do or don’t do will greatly impact the outcome.

A crisis can happen anytime, anywhere, to any organization. Some are predictable; others come unannounced. Crises are characterized by a high degree of instability. They carry potential for extremely negative results. They can bring about dramatic change. A crisis can cause dramatic systems change. A crisis will affect multiple systems; there is a need to manage conflicting goals, values, and responsibilities. You need to have multiple and flexible plans. Crisis leaders must be able to influence others in a positive way; they can’t rely on title or position alone.

A leadership skill set should include collaborative leadership, systems thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, risk communication, influence and negotiation, and conflict management. What is your leadership style? Maybe it is fluid and depends on the situation? I recommend a mixture of styles including transformational (with a little transactional as needed), situational, and servant.

No one is given a set of directions or a plan. Failure is not an option. Leaders are held accountable for outcomes and proactively take responsibility for the outcomes. People are both predictable and unpredictable. Leadership skills must be honed and sharpened.

Leaders set the tone by their example and conduct. Leaders must pay attention to the components of influence: positional power, emotion, expertise, and non-verbal signals. If you are shaking and stammering it is hard to instill confidence. Leaders can have a significant positive impact on a very emotionally charged climate. Leaders cannot rely on authoritarian or fear tactics to get results during a crisis. A well-honed communication strategy is essential. Clear, articulate verbal expression is needed. Careful listening and proper body language must be used at all times. The worse it gets the calmer you must be. Clear, concise and straightforward writing style is required.

I look to military commanders for examples of great crisis leaders. The following are a few of General Hal Moore’s principles. “Three strikes and you’re not out! There is always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor.” A leader must ask, “What am I doing that I should not be doing, and what am I not doing that I should be doing?” “A leader must be visible and exhibit confidence under any set of circumstances. The determination to prevail must be felt by all.” “A leader must always be ready! When there is nothing going wrong, there’s nothing going wrong except there is nothing going wrong.” Finally, “Trust your instincts. Instincts and intuition give you an immediate estimation of a situation.”
Everything in leadership boils down to judgment. Intelligence and good character do not imply you have good judgment. Study history and leadership qualities. Pay special attention to why leaders fail.
A person in a position of authority does not automatically become immediately respected or trusted. This is earned. Every person in an organization is as important and necessary to a mission as the next person. Instill the will to win. Never deprive a person of their self-respect.

You might have inherited or created your team. The fact is it is your team now. To do well in any field of endeavor, it is an advantage to work with good people. Prepare your people through good training and your own leadership example. Spend quality time with the team, learning who they are and what motivates them. Create a family. Great leaders learn to lead self-first. Successful leaders create the future. Leaders must lead. Be the first boots on the ground and the last boots off.

Personal and/or organizational vision and values must be known and shared. One cannot wait until the disaster strikes to start practicing leadership. If the leader is already on shaky ground and has not built up trust and rapport with their team then you are already at a disadvantage and have little room for error. People need to understand the vision and values that are the foundation of your organization; feel ownership; and endorse it. Leaders can leverage and use these as a rallying point. Just as important as sharing vision and values is to have and show sincere interest and genuine concern for others. Treat all people with respect, dignity, appreciation, attention, significance, value and trust. Your presence must be felt and appreciated, and you must lead by example.

Emotional intelligence involves the ability and capacity to recognize your personal feelings and the feelings and emotional reactions of others.  Leaders must also be able to manage their emotions and feelings in their relationships with others.  Emotional intelligence requires a balance between heart and head. No amount of personality, political skills, or cracker-barrel wit can disguise or overcome a deficit in basic technical and managerial competence.  Almost nothing can multiply employee anxieties and reduce confidence more during crisis than a leader who is perceived to be marginally competent.

Influential decision-making means gathering information and getting input as soon as possible; knowing that all the information needed to make the decision isn’t available; accepting that there are risks involved; getting recommendations from others; listening to gut feelings and making the decisions that need to be made. No analysis paralysis allowed.

You must have the courage to tell the truth under difficult circumstances, to make hard decisions, to answer tough questions, to face the unhappy crowd, and to accept responsibility. Start with a clear code of personal values, ethics, and standards. Be willing to take calculated risk. It is okay to be scared, nervous, and worried. It is not okay to let these feelings stop you, control you, or define you. It’s never too early to prepare. Leaders should begin with a self-assessment. Conduct an organizational assessment. Focus on human resources and their readiness.

You are in a marathon, not a sprint. There needs to be continuous assessment of progress. Focus on mental as well as physical health of all your people and you as well. Enlist the support of others. You cannot do it alone especially over an extended period.

Keep the five C’s in mind and use them at all times: communication, cooperation, coordination, collaboration, and command (leadership and management). Involve everyone in “lessons learned” events. Understand what resiliency means and prepare for it. Resiliency basically means the ability to bounce back. The health of your organization as well as your preparedness and handling of an event will go a long way toward better resiliency. Be prepared for a new normal.

Leaders must be engaged before, during, and after a crisis. Crisis leaders must be skilled in communication, clarifying vision and values, and demonstrate caring at all times—not just during a crisis. Leaders need to take time to hone their skills and reflect on their effectiveness.

*Opinions expressed by Campus Consortium Contributors are their own.

About the Author

Jeff Fox, Ph.D. is a trainer, educator, and consultant for Fox Public Safety, LLC. He is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Excellent Teaching and Training, The Ultimate Guide to Being a Great Police Officer, and the Ultimate Guide to Excellent Public Service Leadership and Management. He teaches for numerous universities in the fields of Homeland Security and Criminal Justice.

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