During a crisis, a top-down response can be destabilising for businesses. As leaders face challenges that are unfamiliar and uncertain, a close group of top executives cannot collect all the required information and make rapid decisions quickly enough to respond effectively. Leadership teams who set and communicate clear priorities for the response and empower their teams to discover and implement solutions can better mobilise their organisation and adapt to the new status quo.
A crisis cannot be solved by one person alone
A crisis is a crisis because it is causing an existential threat to the organisation and it is not going to be solved by one person alone. Top level leaders are natural competitors with a dominant persona and a leader’s instinct might be to consolidate decision-making authority and control information. However, doing the opposite during a crisis will encourage teams to follow suit as well as distribute authority and share knowledge.
Just as leaders should prepare for temporarily shifting responsibilities amongst their teams, they also need to empower others to direct many aspects or the organisation’s response to the crisis. This also involves giving them the authority to make and implement decisions without additional approvals, which requires clear accountability measures, so that decisions can be made by appropriate team members at various levels.
Leaders who over centralise the response to the crisis by either putting themselves or a small team in the centre of all decision making are not only delaying crucial decisions, but can eventually become a single point of failure as the whole organisation relies on them.
The situation is changing on a daily basis, requiring quick adaptation, and learning. Decision makers will naturally make many mistakes as the crisis evolves, and it is important to learn from them rather than overreact or temporarily paralyse the organisation.
War room leadership
Difficult times call for rapid problem solving and execution, under high stress and chaotic circumstances. To manage the response, leaders need to foster collaboration and transparency and bring together a network of teams who can carry out responses outside of normal operations, as well as adjustments to routine business activities.
One of the most difficult challenges of the pandemic has been the uncertainty about how long it will go on for. Usually, disasters or unforeseen events have a relatively short lifespan – whilst they have devastating consequences, we know that they are likely to end by a certain point. We do not know when this crisis is going to end, how much worse it will get before it gets better and how will the post-Covid world look like.
As the crisis evolves, new crisis response leaders will emerge and teams will change. Leaders need to learn to understand how to on-board and off-board those on their crisis management teams, as the long hours and stress levels can lead to physical and mental exhaustion. So, it is important that there is a clear turnaround between team members whilst maintaining continuity, however this can be a real challenge if roles and handover processes are not clearly defined.
It does take discipline to step back, as adrenaline levels during crisis are extremely high. But as this crisis is not a sprint, but a marathon, naturally the adrenalin levels will start to run out, leading to a ‘war room fatigue’.
In this current situation, the goal is to stay stronger for longer. We are not going to overpower or out negotiate the coronavirus – it is the team’s ability to work collectively and continuously that will help to overcome the crisis.
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