What does it take to be a crisis leader? And how do you motivate?

One of the most fascinating and valuable lessons learned from the gulf spill is about crisis leadership. The Coast Guard commissioned report on the spill learnings, titled Incident Specific Performance Review (ISPR) provides wealth of incredibly valuable lessons, but none more important than the issue of crisis leadership.

To download the pdf of this important analysis here’s my post on emergencymgmt.com. Those participating in this study–representatives from various government agencies and the private sector directly involved in the spill, made it clear that there were many disappointing examples of crisis leadership during this huge event. But, there were also stellar examples of the kind of leadership needed when it looks like everything is falling apart. There is one thing Japan needed about as much as more solid earth underground and that is the leadership of the likes of Admiral Allen.

From the good, bad and ugly these perceptive and very honest people observed, here is the list of leadership qualities they identified:

Command Presence: The ability to project an image of being in charge and able to effectively address the crisis. This elusive but necessary quality will have a dramatic effect on the public’s confidence in the entire response.

Authoritativeness: The ability to speak with authority. This is best accomplished with sufficient command of detail to assure national leadership, the media, and the public that the leader is knowledgeable in all facets of the response.

Integrity: The ability to be both transparent and truthful in all actions. There are many occasions in which information released may not show the organization in a favorable light, and the temptation is to withhold or script information to avoid criticism. Once a leader’s integrity is attacked, that person’s value to the organization is severely diminished, and the leader should be removed from the response effort.

Stamina: Rotation of crisis leaders at the highest levels is problematic for continuity of operations, and for the public’s expectation of seeing one face and hearing one voice. Crisis leaders at the highest levels should be prepared to manage from mobilization through demobilization phases of the response.

Strategic Thinking and Command of Detail: The ability to think strategically and have command of detail. These traits complement each other, and allow the leader to speak authoritatively.

Stress Management: The ability to function during periods of extreme stress. A crisis will most certainly bring high levels of stress during critical periods of the response.

Decisiveness: A willingness to act decisively even when provided with incomplete information. A crisis leader cannot be averse to risk. Crisis leaders are selected for their ability to assess risk, minimize that risk where possible, and decide among alternatives to achieve a desired outcome.

Responsibility, Accountability, and Authority: In the selection of a crisis leader, there is implied trust that the person possesses the requisite skills to make rational decisions. If the crisis leader is given responsibility and is held accountable, he/she must have commensurate authority for decision-making and exercise that authority.

Enhanced Leadership Skills: The crisis leader must possess leadership traits that allow him or her to transcend the pressures of a crisis and use those traits through the duration of the event. Skills such as multitasking, organizational development, analytical and communications skills (which include listening), the ability to delegate and leverage organizational flexibility is vital. At the higher levels, it is important to understand and be able to function within the political environment.

Ability to Inspire: A skilled crisis leader is calm in the midst of chaos. A crisis leader has position power but is most effective leading through “personal power.” Effective leaders inspire rather than intimidate subordinates and have the interpersonal skills to build a cohesive team able to work under stress toward achieving a mutual goal.

The ability to inspire or motivate is critical, particularly when the challenges are so great and there is much reason to just want to give up. I was just sent a link to this incredibly interesting video about what motivates humans, particularly in taking on challenging tasks. It is absolutely worth the time to view.

I know as a leader and CEO of more than one company, I failed in my understanding of some of these important findings. And I see examples all around where it is clear leaders fundamentally misunderstand the motivation of others.

For crisis leaders as well as organizational leaders, the lessons of this scientific study are worth emblazoning on the wall of your office. Nothing replaces transcendental purpose, progress toward mastery and the value of autonomy or self-direction. Certainly money doesn’t. Money used as a reward, past a certain necessary threshold, as this study makes clear serves to demotivate rather than motivate. But, many managers will rely on it because, frankly, its easier to offer more money than it is to get serious about purpose, encouraging and supporting mastery, and giving people the freedom and runway to accomplish what they are capable of without over control or over direction. Don’t believe me? Watch the video.

One thought on “What does it take to be a crisis leader? And how do you motivate?”

  1. Great post.

    Where you list ten qualities, leave you with only three. (Where have I heard that before?!?)

    1) Credibility – covers many above
    2) Focus — covers fewer above
    3) Imagination — not really covered, unless you count #5 and #10.

    – J.D.

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