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Before diving deeper into crisis leadership, it is essential to understand what a crisis is and what challenges crises usually present.
A crisis can be defined differently depending on the context given to certain critical situations.
For example, from the business perspective, a definition can be “a specific, unexpected, and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organization’s high priority goals”. (Seeger et al. 1998, p. 233). Or “a crisis is change – either sudden or evolving – that results in an urgent problem that must be addressed immediately. For a business, a crisis is anything with the potential to cause sudden and serious damage to its employees, reputation, or bottom line”. (Harvard Business Essentials 2004, p. xvi).
If the perspective is changed, let’s say from the military point of view, a crisis may be “an incident or situation that typically develops rapidly and creates a condition of such diplomatic, economic, or military importance that the President or SecDef considers a commitment of U.S. military forces and resources to achieve national objectives. It may occur with little or no warning. It is fast-breaking and requires accelerated decision-making. Sometimes a single crisis may spawn another crisis elsewhere”. (Joint Chiefs of Staff 2011, pp. II‒29).
But a crisis could also be a situation that tests the limits of human response against life or death challenges, such as a natural disaster or a major airline accident. The most recent example we have is the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, unique skills to deal with the situation are required: crisis leadership skills.
From the definitions given above, it is clear that effective crisis leadership requires the leaders to adapt to the specific crisis situation. However, certain aspects are common and continuously needed for effective crisis leadership, no matter the type of crisis.
First of all, to achieve success, the leader should be present and capable of holding, a term used in psychology to define how a person, usually in a position of authority, contains and interprets the events occurring during a crisis or any situation that carries uncertainty. This is a combination of controlling the anxiety generated by the case and helping others understand what is happening and how to deal with it.
In other words, leaders holding combine thinking clearly, provide reassurance, guide people, and help people to work together to overcome the challenge. And they do it at two different levels, the broad corporate level, and the closer personal level.
At the corporate level, holding refers to a group of actions that include, but are not limited to:
On the other hand, holding at the personal level means:
This takes us to another important aspect of leadership needed in a crisis, being creative. Things do not happen as expected during a crisis. Nothing is “normal”. Therefore, the best actions and solutions to follow are not usually straightforward.
Creative leadership will make a difference in crises because it is prepared to think out of the box when responding to dynamic and complex environments is needed. It has been proven that creativity thrives in the most challenging situations. Therefore it is excellent when focusing objectively on solving the task at hand. In this case, finding the best course of action to come out of the crisis in the best possible way.
Characteristics of this type of leadership that make it relevant in crises include:
This said, other essential aspects of leadership needed when in crisis are:
Now, let’s see what it takes to be a good leader in times of crisis.
To be a good leader in times of crisis, there are different actions you can take, which are related to the aspects mentioned in the previous point.
One requirement to adapt during a crisis is being clear on what happened, what is happening, and what is coming after. To achieve this level of clarity, information is required. But not any information. It has to be accurate information without any bias, so selecting the best sources is essential. Remember that more information does not necessarily mean more clarity.
The next step after collecting the information is to spread it to the entire organization. Here, one of the aspects mentioned above is critical, and this is transparency. Effectively communicating transparent information will help you:
This is easy to achieve by using current technology that allows being present even when remote. However, it is recommended to communicate in person if possible. Also, it is essential to review, repeat and reinforce the information to ensure everyone receives and understands it.
Once everyone is informed of the situation, it is crucial to make them understand what the organization takes actions and why they are taken.
Many actions will indeed be taken very quickly because the nature of a crisis demands it. However, as the situation evolves, do the actions taken, and keep everyone updated.
This does not mean that you have to be around people all the time or speak to every single employee every day. It means to let them know how and when they can reach you for updates and questions. Make them know the communication channels they should be using.
Also, it is essential to show them you are concerned about the situation but take it with calm, knowledge, and a clear path to follow. This way, employees feel that things are under control to keep moving forward confidently.
After the urgent matters of a crisis have been sorted out, there is time to reflect and learn from the experience while working on recovery and moving back to normal. However, the possibility of similar future crises is real, so it is essential to set some resources into training and create a crisis action plan to respond effectively if things go wrong again.
While many people may think that disaster management as well as crisis management is the same as crisis leadership, it is essential to clarify that they are two different things. It is looked at from the management perspective, and crisis management differs from crisis leadership in that the first one focuses only on handling the situation by following a series of established steps. In contrast, crisis leaders see more than bad news during these difficult circumstances. Effective leaders also see opportunities.
Moreover, crisis management emphasizes management strategy and planning functions the effective leader is usually prepared for carrying out. However, this approach leaves out important human aspects which are critical for leading in challenging times, such as the psychological safety of the group, their needs and emotions, and how the crisis affects their lives. All these help the organization deal with the situation over an extended period of time in a better way.
In today’s world, it is clear that crisis leadership is more relevant than management. Senior executives must become leaders to support their organizations operating in the global economy with success. When the stress of crises arises, these leaders are key to any organization and the communities to which they belong.
Let’s summarize the differences between crisis leadership and crisis management for better understanding.
In other words, it seems that leaders need management during crises, but management alone does not make the cut in leading through a crisis.
Before one person can have a good response when leading through a crisis, dealing with internal issues first is necessary. In other words, leaders need to take care of themselves to really show others and be there for them. Here are some things leaders must do before acting:
The best way leaders can respond to a crisis is by being prepared. A predetermined plan will make responding to such unexpected situations a more manageable task.
As it was mentioned above, readiness is vital to stay focused on what matters. If we take the example of the airline accident discussed before, it makes sense to think that the response should address the needs of the most affected. But, while this is a clear priority, it is also to keep the business going, maintain the organization’s reputation, and lead it to develop new opportunities even during the most challenging circumstances.
Leaders can only develop the skills needed to lead this way by taking the appropriate training.
Crisis communication refers to how leaders address others with the information they need. Obviously, in a crisis, clear communication is vital. The best practices for leaders to achieve clear communication involve three aspects of leadership mentioned above. These aspects are transparency, empathy, and trustworthiness.
The good thing is that organizations worldwide already include these aspects as part of their core values, so leaders can quickly identify with them when they form part of the organization.
Also, leaders need to realize what information the stakeholders require to provide it accurately and concisely, thus avoiding confusion. They must keep in mind that not all people understand data the same way, and not all will be able to interpret and understand numeric data easily.
So, leaders should have the skills to communicate those numbers while reducing the need for calculation from the receivers, which is usually achieved by including visual representations such as graphs, tables, and lists. Research skills are also required to communicate better since it will allow selecting the best sources for the most reliable information, an essential aspect of crisis communication.
Leaders are facing a more unstable, unpredictable, and ever-changing environment worldwide. An essential aspect of this reality is that organizations must plan and prepare for crisis events that may disrupt normal operations and increase all types of risks for stakeholders, thus affecting their lives dramatically. In short, future crisis leaders need to develop the skills and behaviors that will allow them to master the processes that have proved effective in dealing with major worst-case scenarios and crisis events.