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A Guide to Crisis Leadership

Mar 13, 2020 | Blog

Leadership, at every level, is about to be tested in a way in which it has never been tested before. We’re now in uncharted territory in the spread of Covid-19.

The first thing to accept is that leading in a crisis is very different from leading in normal times.

I learnt that the hard way – leading teams in the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster, the Piper Alpha explosion and the Dunblane school shootings.

I was also closely involved in last year’s equine flu incident, which closed down British horseracing for 6 days – a crisis of contagion with some similarities but none of the magnitude of the one we are dealing with today.

The first learning is that our bodies and brains behave very differently in the stress of a crisis.

Our heart rate rises. We perspire more. A battle begins between two parts of our brain – the cerebral cortex which controls the fight, flight or freeze reactions and the limbic system which is responsible for our emotional responses. Failing to control this battle leads to bad decisions or no decisions at all.

The best example of this state of mind is Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger who safely landed a plane on the Hudson River after it hit a flock of birds. His state of “deliberate calm” was what allowed him to make the right decisions to save 155 lives. This is something which pilots practice in simulators and something which our leaders need right now.

The second thing your brain does in a crisis is it constantly seeks to predict the future. This is an advantage and a disadvantage. As we unconsciously focus on what we expect to happen, we can miss what is actually about to happen, especially if it is something totally unexpected.

So, what can we learn from the past which will help our crisis leaders right now? Focus on what is within your sphere of control and influence. Communicate, communicate and communicate to employees, customers and stakeholders. But don’t think information makes people informed. Context and tone is everything.

Show care and compassion to your people. What you do in a crisis will either create powerful bonds for a lifetime or bad feelings which never wash away. Be visible. Walk the shop floor. Talk to the people. Reassure. They will be watching you and their mood will mirror your behaviour. In some circumstances, use humour with your teams. It signals normality and releases endorphins in the brain which counteract the feelings of stress.

In the first phase of a crisis people always respond well. It is when the first phase is over that people tire and bad judgements are made. Plan to avoid this.
Remember your duty as a wider corporate citizen. If your business can help the community, not only is it the right thing to do, but it will be hugely appreciated. Monitor your own energy, stress levels and reactions. You need to keep in good shape to lead your business and your people through whatever will happen next. Watch for fight, flight or freeze responses in your own behaviour. These are the first signs of exhaustion and burnout – normally followed by a feeling of being overwhelmed and low accomplishment.

This period of extreme stress and colossal decisions is, of course, the most important time to turn to a mentor or an executive coach – to pause for even 30 minutes of contemplation and respite at key moments. It is, ironically, the time when few will take this most valuable of steps – crucial for their own well-being and decision making and potentially game-changing for the businesses and the people they lead.

Atholl Duncan is the Chair of the leadership and performance business, Black Isle Group.
Published in City AM newspaper on 13 March 2020