Those of you who know me will recognise that I have a habit of resorting to Latin phrases or poetry for inspiration. So I make no apologies for sharing with you a few lines from Rudyard Kipling’s immortal poem “If”, which he wrote in 1895:
“If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”
In today’s cluttered, congested, contested, changing but above all uncertain global environment, I think that that Kipling’s words have never been more relevant.
We do live in a unique crease in history. The tentacles of COVID 19 have insidiously wrapped themselves around every facet of our economic, social, physiological and emotional lives. And in a society which is quick to point the finger of blame, where responsibility and accountability are often uncomfortable bed partners, and when uncertainty and crisis are the dominant factors, quite often leaders suffer.
The new vogue – Crisis Leadership
So how do we equip people to ‘lead’ organisations in such unparalleled times of challenge? A trawl of the internet will quickly unearth an abundance of articles on crisis leadership.
Some use the Emotion curve to describe how modern executives are dealing with uncertainty and challenge:
Analysis of recent corporate results would suggest that less than 1% of executives are in disbelief and only 7% in anger. Now, they’re moving up the other side of the curve—first acceptance, then optimism. But only a quarter of leaders have so far made the move all the way to meaning.
Others suggest that there are two types of leaders these days:
Rabbit in a headlight. Group No 1 are capable of taking constructive feedback. Often, they’ve heard some of this input before. But instead of taking any action to improve, these leaders only want to keep reaching for the same bag of tricks of what’s worked in the past. How can leaders unwilling to move themselves ever move their organization?
Purposeful Leaders. Group No 2 absorbs every word of the feedback, taking pages of notes and asking insightful questions about how and where to improve. These leaders are clearly ripe for transformation—and, indeed, they want to drive it! They are exactly the kind of leader companies need today—lifelong learners with a start-up mentality.
I would argue that there is – without doubt – a place for crisis leadership. It has its place on the battlefield (Destroy the enemy on Hill 204). It enables company executives to react to unexpected strategic events (Donald Rumsfeld’s Unknown Unknowns). And it enables Government to adapt policy with agility to meet strategic challenges.
But I would also argue that crisis leadership has its limitations. It is short term, or time specific (it is centred on the here and now). It places the outcome at the centre of all action. And in so doing, it ignores the human dimension which in the medium to long term is the life-blood of any organisation.
Adair’s Action Centre Leadership.
Put it another way, crisis leadership ignores the psychology of leadership. By focussing on ‘task’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘outcome’, crisis leaders ignore the essential human dynamics which all organisations require for enduring success. I want to take us back to John Adair’s model of Action Centred Leadership. I first came across this model as a young officer cadet at Sandhurst in the early 1980s. Adair’s model served me well at the time (well, I graduated from Sandhurst in any event!) and I believe that it is still valid today.
For Adair, life as a leader is indeed complex. But he believed a leader’s overriding concern, was to translate an organisation’s strategy and direction into action and generate performance through people.
Adair’s model is as good place as any to start:
The Leader’s role is to balance the needs of the three elements: Task, Individual and Team. These overlap but concentrating on one aspect will mean having to play catch-up with the others. Life isn’t always neat.
Once a leader is clear on the task, he or she will then supply its needs. So create a plan, and identify and arrange sufficient resources, (human, time and materiel). By defining quality and standards, leaders will assess risks and financial needs and identify the skills needed to carry it out.
Where the spheres overlap, the elements work together from a leader’s point of view. As leader in the centre, you will inspire and manage each sector’s needs to achieve your results.
If you don’t already have a team, you will be selecting people with the right attributes. However, it is quite likely that you will be working with people who are already available to you, perhaps an established departmental team. In either case, you will need to assess ability and skills and continually develop them.
Don’t Forget the Emotion
Adair’s model works as long as leaders recognise and emphasise the importance of emotional development. For an organisation to be healthy, each and every member of the work-force need to be recognised and rewarded for their unique contribution. People matter. Every person brings a unique combination to the work-place. Fears, motivations, skill-sets, insights, behaviours.
The job of the leader is to use his or her own influential skills to motivate every individual and bring them together to forge a team. This people relationship has emotional roots. Leaders should inspire, coach and support their workforce and build synergy in the team. This is about belonging.
Resilient leadership also requires constant and effective communication at all levels. Effective leaders will include individual personal goals in the evaluation of any task. All team members, and especially the leadership cohort, will gain valuable experience. So assess what went well, and what could be done differently next time? Recognise both individual contribution and team work of a job well done. And reward individuals appropriately (saying ‘thank-you’ is free).
Finally, resilient leadership requires time for self. For reflection. For white space. For moral development. For re-charging the batteries. And it requires an openness of mind. To accept challenge. To embrace and learn from failure. To listen. And to adapt or compromise where circumstances dictate.
Get this right, and you will run an organisation that is motivated, focussed, inspired and happy. Where individuals feel motivated and empowered. Where the collective team output is greater than the sum of the individual parts. What is not to like?