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Leadership in a crisis


Leadership is critical for determining outcomes in any situation – but what is distinctive about the leadership that is required in a crisis asks Professor Ivan Robertson.

Over the past few months, the public have lost their trust in politicians and in the political system as a whole as a result of the expense claims revelations. The incident was a massive blow to public confidence in our system of government as we have seriously questioned the integrity and honesty of the people who govern us. And now that the full extent of the situation has unfolded, the public and the media alike are looking around for someone who can lead the way to reform, it seems like a good time to consider the role that leadership has played in causing the current crisis, as well as how it could help to make things better.

For me, one particular issue seems to stand out. Collectively, the people who lead our country have failed to 'model the way'. Indeed, most observers seem to feel that MPs have provided a very poor model for how to behave. They have also fallen down on challenging the status quo and seeking to make it better, at least as far as their own expenses system is concerned. On the contrary, many MPs seem to have fully accepted the situation and used it to their own advantage. Thinking about the great leaders of our age, is this something you can imagine a Mandela or a Ghandi doing?

"Creating an attractive future that enthuses and energises the workforce and gives employees something to believe in provides a platform for great leaders to do their stuff."

Modelling the way and challenging the process are just two of five widely accepted elements of world-class leadership - the others are: enabling others to act; encouraging the heart and inspiring a shared vision (see Kouzes and Posner for more information). In times of crisis, I think that the latter - the capacity to inspire a compelling shared vision – becomes particularly important.

Effective leaders and managers need to have enthusiastic followers - but unlike management, leadership does not involve the close supervision of others to ensure that they are following the correct path. So how does it work? This is where the vision that good leaders create becomes crucial. Creating an attractive future that enthuses and energises the workforce and gives employees something to believe in provides a platform for great leaders to do their stuff. Workforces start to buy into such visions when they are clearly and compellingly communicated and when leaders generate a climate of trust throughout the organisation. A powerful vision can also be a source of strength and resilience for the leader him/herself when times are tough. It provides a reminder of why the leader ‘does this’ and what it’ll be like when the organisation ‘gets there’.

So thinking about the way ahead, if a lack of good collective leadership has created the crisis, what behaviours are required to improve things?

Key individual leaders will be important, and in particular, I’m thinking of the role that the Prime Minister will need to play in moving things forward as the leader of the government. More than ever, the existence of a crisis demands that leaders recognise when current behavioural norms are not good enough and then challenge them. That much does appear to be happening now, even though it does seem to have largely been caused by a public outcry, rather than a spontaneous drive to improve things from the MPs themselves.

"As well as challenging the status quo, effective leaders support people and provide them with the resources and encouragement to reach out for the vision."

Challenging the status quo is something that it is often easy (though not necessarily comfortable) to see in the best leaders – think Mandela, Gorbachev, Branson. They do not accept things as they are and challenge themselves and others to make things better. If there is also an inspiring, shared vision of the future to back this up good leaders are able to use this to challenge the ‘now’; to describe how the future could be and to communicate the benefits to others. But being unhappy with the current situation and having a strong vision won’t change things on their own. As well as challenging the status quo, effective leaders support people and provide them with the resources and encouragement to reach out for the vision. They are also prepared to go first and stand up for what they believe. The very best leaders provide a clear model for how to behave.

In the current economic situation, and in the aftermath of the expenses crisis, we need all of the above in bucket loads. A series of crises have brought this need for leadership to the fore and now we wait to see where that will come from. I leave you to consider whether or not Gordon Brown has done and can do enough on this front.

Robertson Cooper’s top tips for leadership in a crisis:
  • Revisit your vision for the organisation or your part of it – remind yourself why it’s important for you and your team to do ‘this’
  • Re-communicate your vision – adapting how you position it to suit the times
  • Keep challenging accepted wisdom and behavioural norms
  • Keep challenging your staff to go to new levels – but balance this appropriately with support
  • Empathise with what the current crisis means for your staff and how it is affecting them – listen and support them; make changes to suit the times
  • Look after yourself - make sure you have the resources to stay resilient – your team members need you on good form; you’re no good to them burnt out
  • Now more than ever, it’s important that you model the behaviour you expect from your staff – whether that be superior performance or achieving work-life balance – it all starts with you
  • Resist the need to take complete control – even in a crisis you can’t do or control everything! Find ways to enable your team to do what is required to steer the organisation through the crisis. As a leader your job is to provide direction, challenge and support
  • Finally, stay positive – remember that vision
 Professor Ivan Robertson is managing director, Robertson Cooper:

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