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Leadership in Challenging Times

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09 Feb '24
10 min read


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Most of us, as leaders deal with unexpected things.

Things that are not on the schedule,

Things that are not part of the agenda, and all of a sudden we are thrown into unknowns.

In such a situation – how do you respond, and how do you react to the unexpected?

Managers can become leaders, and leaders need managerial skills.

However, the key to great leadership is how well they handle crises and how well they “manage and lead” at the same time.

Though crises by definition something unexpected, effective leaders can and should still prepare for them.

What leaders have to realize is that when a crisis hits, you just cannot rest on your laurels and think that everything will move along normally. You need to train, prepare, and execute.

In addition, being a Business coach, I am also a leader and a key person in the management team of my organization, I had multiple opportunities to interact with C- suit officials – which has helped me to develop a few principles of leadership, which I would like to share with others.

Let us discuss them one by one.

Principle no. 1

“Unexpected is a law of nature and it always comes in the form of crisis.”

What we call a crisis is something that we did not anticipate to occur – or something goes against our plan.

Let me tell you about a real incident that occurred in the past with a leading airline company.

A flight took off from point A to point B. After take-off, the plane suddenly disappears in the sky before reaching the desired destination B.

High levels of investigation and search agencies were deployed, to get the whereabouts of the missing plane, but even now, they failed to retrieve any authentic information regarding the plane with 700 passengers onboard.

Never in the history of aeronautical engineering, where any airline company ever planned anything what if their plane suddenly disappeared from the sky and not being found for many years?

It was shocking news for the entire airline industry. Everyone wondered where the plan had disappeared.

If you are an airline company, what do you do if your plane disappears suddenly after taking off?

No evidence, no sign, no location - just a few guesses.

This is what unexpected is.

As the CEO of the airline company what you will do?

What answers you will offer to people who will raise several questions against you?

Just look at the situation…

Your airline takes passengers from Point A to Pont B – and now your plane has just disappeared in the sky…

•         What kind of responsibility you will own as the CEO of the airline?

•         What consolation you will offer to families of people who boarded your plane?

•         What assurance you will provide to those who have bought the tickets and are queued up to board the next dozens of flights of your airline?

•         How will you create confidence in thousands of passengers that they are safe on your airline?

When leading through a crisis, most leaders are forced to think and behave in ways that feel unfamiliar.

Let me tell you about yet another real incident that happened in the past.

At one of the busiest airports during busy hours, a bomb blast took place in front of an airline terminal from where thousands of passengers were boarding the flights.

As a terminal in charge, how you will respond to this unexpected?

As a front desk manager, what is your immediate line of action? 

This is a real crisis and leadership in crisis needs to emerge.

There are several real-life events that we can refer to, that have occurred which are great crisis moments. 

The terrorist attack on September 11, came without warning to the general public, much like the crisis.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic is also providing us with valuable lessons in crisis leadership, especially for WHO leaders and presidents of countries all around the world.

What I have understood, by watching these amazing leaders and my interaction as a business coach with equally awesome leaders like them is that the unexpected is the nature of the crisis.

These leaders have conditioned their minds that someday they have to deal with the unexpected. These leaders know well that you cannot plan anything for the unexpected but you can create a system or a kind of preparation for the unexpected.

For great leadership in a crisis - Readiness is the key.

As a leader, your first task is to bring your entire focus on – 

•         What do you do with unexpected?

•         What template of action plan you have created when things are going against your plan?

•         How you have conditioned your mind to think through the ‘what–if’ kind of life situation that can arise - in your own life, in your society, or your organization.

The second most important thing in an unexpected kind of situation is the speed at which the crisis strikes.

What it means, it is not just about the unexpected things happening but the speed at which it is happening.

The crisis is not something that builds up slowly and you have lag time to prepare before it strikes you. The unexpected always happens in a real-time frame.

There are two different crisis scenarios – the one when you know the problem and you have to deal with a known problem and the other where the problem is unknown and unseen.

How would you handle this?

What is that you would do something unusual for unknown things?

This question leads us to the third important thing about the unexpected is- to have an extreme focus on the crisis.

For example, if something unexpected is going to happen- 

•         you don’t know when

•         you don’t know where

•         you don’t know what is going to happen

•         you don’t know at what speed it is going to happen

That is why the focus on the crisis is necessary.

Those awesome leaders in such situations keep their eyes on what is happening although things around them are shattering.

Disasters can make or break a leader.

Leaders should think about themselves as islands of coherence in a sea of chaos. Your ability to manage yourself in this process—to stay grounded and to remain clear in a disorienting situation—is really what will make or break you.

To understand this Focus aspect in a better way, let us go back to an earlier illustration, - an occurrence of a bomb blast in front of an Airline terminal.

•         What would be their immediate response

•         What would they think about their staff’s safety

•         What would they plan for the passengers who are queuing up for boarding on various flights?

•         What would be an immediate emergency and safety measures will come into play so that the panic button is not being pressed all over

•         How can you convey to people to remain calm and composed and how will you assure them that the situation is under control and there is no need to panic?

•         How the emergency team will get into action to rescue people who are injured and evacuate them from the site to the nearest hospital.

•         Although you have an emergency team, how would you communicate with them to get into action from wherever they are?

•         What action you will initiate so that onlookers and the people who are not the victims do not become media of rumors? 

As a leader, you need to understand and accept that a crisis is disruptive.

The disruption caused can be relatively small and last for a short duration and then the situation returns to normal. A disruption can be of large magnitude and lasts for a longer duration.

While handling a crisis effectively, two distinct things need to be taken into account.

One is what is happening that needs to be dealt with while the other is the effect or the consequences post-crisis.

As a leader when you are leading through a crisis – a great thing can happen or a terrible thing can happen, for the kind of decision you make.

You should not forget one thing, every decision has an emotional price tag.

The longer you take to make a decision, the more the decision becomes emotional.

The ability to remain calm but quick in action with a focused mind is the kind of leadership quality expected in such leaders.

In my opinion, every crisis is a function of the Leader’s Mandate. 

A crisis demands a combination of authentic, transformational, and servant leadership styles. 

Each one brings to the table a quality that addresses people’s fears, concerns, and hopes.

Media and press reporters will corner you and throw all kinds of questions and ask for immediate solutions – the ability to answer them – saying: ‘Yes we can handle everything which is disrupted at the moment- but before that let us handle the ‘First thing first ‘ which is very important and please allow us to do our job first.’

We need very brave Leaders in such situations, but there are few questions that need answers:

•         Who are those people who stand by such a leader

•         Where are those people who will act on time

•         Where are those people who will execute the leader’s plan

Even if we have people – 

•         how do we reach those people 

•         how do we communicate with them

•         how can we explain to them what needs to be done

•         how do we monitor the actions taken

•         how do we communicate to change the of strategy if required

Amidst the uncertainty to remain focused is the greatest leadership quality these leaders possess.

In uncertain situations everything will go chaotic, you might be willing to communicate but the situation doesn’t permit those with whom you want to communicate.

Training in crisis leadership—which typically teaches leaders to manage emotions, assemble emergency task forces, and maximize technology and communication channels.

•         There are going to be emotions that will overwhelm you – but you need to remain focused

•         There are problems at all levels and there will be pressure building up from all sides- but you stay focused.

Remember one thing, a leader knows what he needs to do first, so focus on that one thing…and later think about how you do that one thing first!

So, do first thing first, then second, then third

A leader must check do we have a team of people who can do three things together. If not three, at least two things together?

The fourth important thing about unexpected crisis is – the process of crisis.

What I mean by the process is, though the unexpected has occurred, if you have the process – even though you don’t know the length, width, or magnitude of the unexpected, you would be in a position to chalk out the exact road map in the situation of crisis:

For example:

•         These are the list of the people you are going to call or communicate

•         These are the people who belong to the immediate reaction team

•         These are the teams who are trained on how to respond when unexpected occur.

•         Because they are trained- they know exactly – when they receive a call – they know what information they have, what information they need to obtain, and based on this how will they act and deal with the situation?

This is possible because these are those individuals who have exceptional focus and are prepared for the unexpected.

There is a team and the team has a process. The process is well laid out for – the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the actions.

These are people who are recruited only for the unexpected.

They are mentally prepared how to handle emotional bursts they need not have to go through a bundle of emotions to come out stable.

They reach from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds. They know when to change the gear and set things rolling.

These individuals – I refer to them as crisis counselors.

They are damage control specialists.

In the end, what it boils down to is that you should have a rapid thinker and quick decision-maker in the form of a leader.

A leader should be prepared to pass through a ‘What if” scenario quite often.

To conclude, while it is not easy to be a great leader at all times, it is possible that they can exhibit crisis management that can earn them everlasting fame and name.

Category : Leadership


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Written by Nitin Mistry