Leadership in a crisis

When organisations face an economic crisis which demands drastic action from everyone  this often throws leadership into sharp relief, as it is doing in the UK at the moment. We might ask questions about why ‘they’ didn’t make better plans, why they didn’t make better decisions in the past, why they don’t act rationally rather than emotionally, why they don’t act on the basis of ‘hard’ data, why they can’t communicate more effectively, be more honest and transparent and stop being political. Why can’t everyone put the good of the organisation first?

There can be no surprise that when things get tough people start to ask how it is that we find ourselves in a mess in the first place.

Such criticisms may or may not be apposite  but when we reflect on our own situation we might appreciate that just as we might not fully understand what is going on and find ourselves hemmed in by constraints with not very much freedom to act, so some of these conditions might be the same for ‘them’. One of the features of leadership, particularly in difficult and fast changing situations, is that leaders are often asked to act with very imperfect information. Employees look to their leaders to know, yet oftentimes the leaders may not know much more than those they are leading. We might all be experiencing conditions that no one has predicted or expected. Thinking about leadership like this might lead us to observe that there may be a limit to honesty and transparency in such situations where admitting that ‘I have absolutely no idea what’s going on’ might be too anxiety-provoking for those who are looking to us for some kind of stability. And although the role middle and senior middle managers sometimes feels as though it is being overridden when decision-making, which was supposed to be decentralised, suddenly and in a crisis gets pulled back into the centre, it may be that one of the most important things senior middle managers are doing is creating a sense of stability in a time of flux.

What does it mean to be honest and transparent, to develop trust and confidence so that people can speak out and/or ask questions and express their fears, at the same time as not necessarily sharing everything that one knows or doesn’t know? This will depend upon the quality of the relationships one has with the people one is leading. How people experience us as leaders will affect what they feel constrained and enabled to say.

Crises are exactly the time when emotion is rife in organisations, and the idea that managers and leaders can just act calmly and rationally is hard to sustain. The words and actions of leaders can set off all kinds of fears and fantasies amongst those we lead, and the way we respond to a particular question, the expression on our face or the tone of voice can have a huge impact on people that we cannot predict. What leaders do and say, particularly at times of crisis, can have huge symbolic significance and can set all kinds of emotions going in people. We may also notice that small things, like where the tea trolley is placed, or who owns the stapler, can take on huge significance for employees looking for some control and/or stability in a seemingly unstable world.

People get involved in politics in every organisation: in fact, this is one of the central roles of leaders, to play the political ‘game’ as a way of getting engaged with what is going on in order to influence it, perhaps to protect members of staff for whom one is responsible or an area of service. This raises the ethical question of how to get engaged in the politics: what might we mean by engaging with integrity ? It is not at all obvious what acting for the good of the organisation would mean except in a very general sense, and even for ourselves, acting as leaders, there are often competing goods: we are constantly exploring, negotiating and compromising around the good for our unit, our own good and the good for the people whom we are leading.

The personal behaviour of leaders is always under scrutiny in organisations, and in crises it becomes even more so. For this reason in the UK the matter of MPs expenses has come very much to the fore. When those in charge seem to be asking for great sacrifice from everyone else, it seems particularly hypocritical if they themselves seem to be milking their expenses.

Finally, how might  people we lead might experience us as human or humane leaders, irrespective of how busy we are? While we are not necessarily setting out to make everyone our friend, but would prefer rather to work with people who can do a good professional job with us, we nonetheless like to be recognised ourselves so it would be no surprise that the people we lead like to be recognised, even if the news we have to give them is bad.


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