Compared to business as usual, a crisis presents a unique and challenging decision-making environment. Whether it’s a natural disaster, hostage scenario, malware attack or other crisis, leaders and team members may be under enormous psychological pressure when managing through a major incident. In such extremes, strategic leadership is crucial, particularly as the leader is unlikely to have had direct experience of the crisis beforehand.
Two different leadership styles
There are two different leadership styles that may apply when managing a major incident. These being task-orientated and people-centred leadership. Neither one of these leadership styles outweigh the other in importance. Instead, depending on the crisis and incident, the appropriate leadership style will need to be invoked.
The task-orientated leadership style is focused on strong hierarchies and task-orientated behaviour to drive outcomes. This leadership style takes command and control of the situation by determining specific tasks and scope of work for their alternates. She or he determines what, how, where and when the work must be done .
The people-centred leadership style places greater emphasis on their relationship with their team members, encourages two-way communication and harnesses ideas from the team. Employees often open up to leaders who are human, who have made mistakes and learned from them. ‘When you capture the hearts and minds of people, let them have their say in some of the decisions, they will have greater buy-in and be more willing to strive for excellence,’ says Melbourne RiskLogic Senior Manager, Gary Vogel.
Choosing the best crisis leadership style for your organisation
Crises are unpredictable, chaotic and can escalate quickly. Leaders must deal with issues that are difficult to understand and which seriously threaten the viability of the organisation and possibly even the safety and welfare of staff and clients or customers. ‘During a crisis, people are often panicky and in need of assurance that someone strong is in control. Task-orientated leadership using the command and control approach has been used effectively in these situations as it provides strength, helps assure the team, and galvanises their efforts,’ confirms Vogel.
“An inspirational leader is one who quickly, calmly and decisively controls a crisis situation”
‘With great power comes great responsibility, and mangers are expected to lead – especially through times of difficulty. A good leader will change their leadership style based on the situation,’ adds RiskLogic’s Brisbane Regional Manager, Simon Petie.
A people-centric leadership style may well be better placed for the business as usual environment, or when reviewing and learning from the crisis and preparing for the next one. For a people-centred leadership approach to be effective during the crisis, the workforce must be fully aligned in its values, direction and drive for success.
‘The maturity of the crisis management team is a critical consideration in terms of how the leader leads during a crisis,’ says RiskLogic’ Melbourne Regional Manager, Cheryl Hambly ‘If the team has extensive experience working together in crisis mode, the leader may be able to take a more supportive rather than directive role. However, in reality this may be difficult to achieve. In a less mature team, as is often the case, team members will need a higher level of direction to set objectives and respond to the situation,’ adds Hambly.
In a crisis, there is often simply no time to consult with the team about what to do. If you hesitate as a leader, if you delay a decision in order to form a committee to discuss your options, you may miss the decisive point that will tip the balance between success and failure, or possibly even life and death.
Becoming a resilient organisation
To be a resilient organisation, leaders must be able to adapt to and successfully steer the organisation through all kinds of disruptive changes. It’s not enough to simply train your managers to be decisive or to tell your staff the location of emergency exits and assembly points.
If the command and control leadership approach is counter to your organisation’s typical approach, working through times of stress and challenge may be exceptionally difficult. Leadership in a crisis might not be within the skill-set of your organisation’s senior leaders – a leader who is highly successful in normal business may not be able to lead well in a crisis.
The only practical way of preparing leaders for a crisis is a rigorous, realistic and regular training program, which allows leaders to examine all the implications of those challenging, yet plausible ‘What if…?’ scenarios. Key employees need to be trained to work within the crisis management plan to help ensure they respond in the most appropriate way. A well-managed communications strategy that ensures accurate and timely communication is also critical to instil calmness, authority and confidence in all those affected by the crisis.