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The ABCs of leadership in crisis

Note: The following article was written by international leadership expert Emmanuel Gobillot. It is reprinted here with permission.

By Emmanuel Gobillot

Leadership: To create the conditions that ensure the positive engagement of others with a goal.

Crisis: From the Greek for "decision," crises are times of intense shock responses to conditions that will define your ability to survive.

However experienced you are at leadership, crises — whether local or global, big or small — are difficult as they completely redefine the climate you operate under. They are tests to your ability to remain steady and decisive.

The default position in crisis is one of control (the more out of control we feel, the more we want to regain it), when in fact the only way to get through a crisis is to ensure the steady flow of information from all parts of the system to ensure decisions are made with full information. This means that rather than control, success can only come from redoubling your efforts to gather discretionary effort (i.e. positive engagement) rather than simply gaining compliance (i.e. simply follow orders). The balancing act between necessary compliance and needed engagement is difficult to achieve, which is why I have come to rely on the three core principles and eight tactical interventions below.

It is also important to remember that, as human beings, leaders are not immune to the impact of crisis on their own psyches. For this reason, at the top of this piece I should reiterate the ancient proverb “physician, heal thyself." To be effective as you implement interventions, you will first need to redouble your efforts at self-awareness and self-management, as well as to ensure self-care.

The ABC model tells you the principles you need to apply while the mnemonic CHARISMA gives you clues as to the tactics to use for each area.

Remember, though, that while the presentation of the model might be linear, its application isn’t. You may need to go from A to C and back to B, and you certainly will need to go around all three multiple times as circumstances change. Crisis leadership is about decisiveness and consistency, but it is also about adaptation. Danger comes from doggedly sticking to failed tactics in the face of changing circumstances.

A is for 'Appreciate where people are at' The reason I use CHARISMA as a mnemonic is that no one is born with charisma. It is a gift your followers look for and bestow upon you, especially in times of crisis if you manage to create the necessary conditions for them to release their discretionary effort. This is why we need to start with appreciating where our followers are at. Nothing can be achieved without an understanding of their needs and wants, as well as hopes — where are they now and where will you take them. This requires two key elements — compassion to understand and hope to drive forward momentum.

1. Compassion Compassion is different from empathy and sympathy. It is active rather than reflective. Knowing how people feel is insufficient, and feeling as they do is counterproductive. Compassion is about followers feeling that you “get them." You are neither detached nor aloof. As followers, we do not want you to be “one of us,” we need you to be “a better, and hopefully the best, version of us."

Having compassion is about listening and thinking. Listen to the unsaid as well as what is being said. Listen to the mood music rather than just the notes. Think deeply about what this means for the actions you will take and how you will articulate these.

Proximity to your followers is key at a time when the demands on your time and the need to isolate yourself in meetings with experts will be unprecedented. Your aim is not to be liked; it is to have your leadership respected. Being liked means refusing to make the tough calls. Compassion is about making the decisions that matter to make people stronger and more capable, rather than happy. That being said, remember that compassion can also be as simple as saying, "Thank you."

2. Hope Hope is not blind optimism. It is about a shared goal plus the will and the way to achieve it.

Giving hope is, therefore, about knowing the goal to articulate, sharing insights on the actions taken, and demonstrating the willingness to take them. Followers want to know their leader is willing and ready to lead them to a better place. Achieving this can be as simple as being present and available. Call around to support, make yourself available to listen, and reiterate your willingness to help, as well as your call to action (see B). As the crisis unfolds, followers look for steadfastness of goals rather than action. If you must change the goal, rely on your compassion and B to ensure the new one is understood and shared.

Compassion and hope do not equate to doing whatever your followers think they might need. It is why I reminded you at the start about the etymology of crisis. You have to make decisions. Being decisive is the essence of leadership in crisis. You will ask questions and get multiple answers. Every expert will have a valid perspective, but one rooted in their specific area. As a leader, your role is to take these multiple perspectives (be they economic, medical, operational, etc.) to shape a strategy. The leadership act of engagement, however, is to ensure this strategy is seen by followers in light of their fears and goals. You cannot look up to your followers for answers or look down on them because of their lack of appreciation of complexities that you alone see because of your greater access to information. There is no right or wrong emotional reaction to a crisis. To understand others’ perspectives, you must look forward with them and articulate the goal in a way that resonates within their context.

B is for 'Broadcast to them' Words are critical tools of leadership. In crisis, communication is key. Often people think there is no such thing as too much communication in crisis. That’s not true. But there can never be too much of the right kind of communication. Communicating helps mobilize, but only if done right. Done wrong, it amplifies the crisis.

To create the right broadcast (i.e. one that amplifies the right message and helps others know what to do when you are not in the room), use the following four tactics.

3. Accurate The more uncertain the environment is, the more certainty people crave. The more fearful they are, the more reassurance they seek. In this context (and given the hope we seek to provide), it would be expedient to say whatever we believe people need to hear. This is a mistake, as it would diminish your credibility as events unfold. Statements made need to be accurate.

This is not always easy, as the advice you get may be contradictory. There are two solutions to this which need to be used in conjunction with each other. Explain the contradictions and the nature of the decision you have made in the face of these. Clearly describe your intent. You may (and probably will) make mistakes, but you will be judged on your intent that you will and your ability to maintain a consistent message on the goal.

4. Rhetoric Aristotle’s rhetorical modes of persuasion are even more important in times of crisis.

— Ethos: The appeal through authority will reinforce your message. Use the experts around you. Expertise provides reassurance.

— Pathos: The appeal to emotions is key here. Use your findings in A to reinforce an emotional message. Fear is an emotion which facts won’t kill. Stories, analogies, and pictures are the only ways to address emotions. In crisis, allegories work.

— Logos: Appealing through logic reinforces your authority. Use facts and figures and ensure they are accurate. Be mindful that they will change, though, and will therefore always need to be adjusted so as not to derail your efforts over time.

Finally, the lesser-quoted Kayros element is particularly important in crisis. Kayros is about the time and place you use to persuade. Use formal settings for formal addresses and messages (a podium, office, or whatever in your environment signals formality). Use formal communication channels to convey importance and social ones to convey proximity. Vary the channels, but keep the message consistent.

Kayros is also about frequency. Frequent contact matters but should not be overwhelming. The preference should be to keep a consistent frequency. Think of it as the tempo of communication.

Rhetoric is your main weapon against fear to promote discretionary effort.

5. Integrity Integrity here simply refers to the alignment of thoughts, words, and deeds. As a leader, you will have to make choices and, at times, you may well feel that full disclosure is likely to create more issues than it solves. It is fine to filter news, but lying by intent or omission in answer to questions from followers is likely to damage your ability to release their discretionary effort in the long run. This means you have to make choices carefully about your words in the full knowledge that people have an amazing ability to detect falsehoods.

Do not ask others to do things you will not do yourself or make sacrifices you are not prepared to make yourself. This will only damage your message, unless you acknowledge you are not doing them and explain the necessary reasons why.

This alignment will ensure you create resonance by avoiding any hint of incongruence that will, in turn, only provide followers an opportunity to question the validity of your message.

6. Simplicity Simple is not the same as simplistic. In crisis, things are complex. Crises are defined as such primarily because they are systemic. Recognizing this is key to solving them. For this reason, it would be counterproductive to oversimplify. Making things simplistic is reducing the number of parts below the minimum required to understand the issue. It is over-subtraction. Making things simple rather than simplistic is subtracting the unnecessary and superficial and making the rest coherent.

In your communication, you do not have to explain every part, but you do have to make sure people understand the whole. Take all the parts that go into your decision-making and build a story that helps others understand. The key is to ensure your communication goes right to the heart of what is important. It is to ensure the navigation of the problem is intuitive. There will be a lot of information coming your followers’ way, so make sure your message sticks and spreads by making it memorable and easily repeatable.

Before you communicate, think about what you want others to think, feel, say, and do as a result of your intervention and this around these insights.

Broadcasting is about making sure your voice is louder than the anxiety the crisis creates, but remember the old adage: Actions speak louder than words. This is where the third principles comes into play.

C is for 'Create the future together' If appreciating where people are and broadcasting to them is about enabling you to engage them in the release of their discretionary effort, creating the future is about ensuring that the release of their effort is sustainable and sustained throughout the crisis resolution.

7. Milestones / measures / markers There are two timing issues in the mind of anyone in a crisis: (1) When will this be over, and (2) Are we making progress toward resolution? The more the former is difficult to answer beyond an approximation, the more important the latter becomes. Unlike previous tactical elements, I have used three words to describe this one, the choice of which will depend on the crisis you face.

If your crisis is timed and bounded (i.e. you know what to do to get over it with an element of certainty as to the solutions’ efficacy), then describing a sequence of milestones will help you describe the road ahead. When faced with a crisis in which remedies can be identified but their efficacies over time are harder to predict, then describing a sequence of measures to be taken is the best way to ensure followers regain a feeling of control over events.

In a systemic crisis when remedies are multiple, their efficacies unknown, and their adoption likely to be fluid, you should aim to identify markers of progress. In his famous “I Have A Dream" speech, Martin Luther King Jr. outlined each of the above, but in particular he specified some powerful markers “that my children will one day ...”, “that one day in Alabama ...” Taking elements of a crisis and outlining their reversal not only reinforces the goal that is the source of hope, but enables progress to be tracked.

8. Actions In this context, actions don’t refer so much to what generally needs to be done (this is an operational rather than a leadership imperative), but rather what you, as a leader, will do to set the example.

A leader is always watched. This is both a curse and a gift. It’s a curse in so far as you are always under a microscope and the smallest misstep is amplified. But it is also a gift since the smallest thing you purposely change can have large repercussion on the habits and behavior of the system.

In a crisis, you must become even more aware of the impression your actions will leave on others. Symbols matter more than ever, so think about the symbolic actions you can take to encourage (i.e. literally give courage, in this context) your followers. Your actions will speak louder than, you which is why you will have to speak twice as often and twice as loud than usual.

Again, remember that this model is neither linear nor cyclical. Life is messy, and so is leadership in crisis. But by ensuring each of the above elements is taken into account through your leadership, you will gain the discretionary effort of your followers so necessary for success.

Finally, in my experience, it can be hard for leaders in tough times to find an avenue to express their fears and doubts, or simply to ask questions, as they do not want to portray what they see as weaknesses or do anything which might instill doubt in their followers. For these reasons, as usual my email is open should you ever want to reach out. Given current recommended advice about social distancing, I am at home, so I am able to answer quickly and can easily jump on a call, so please, if there is anything at all I can do to support you — even if it’s just listening — don’t hesitate to contact me. I am here for you.

Described as "the first leadership guru for the digital generation," Emmanuel Gobillot has more than 15 years of experience in helping organizations and audiences globally rethink the way they build and run organizations.


Bill Sheridan