You can’t be prepared for every crisis when you’re an executive, but you can take steps in advance to mitigate their effects. And you must always bear in mind the importance of your actions as a leader during times of crisis.

You can’t predict crises, but you can prepare for them in certain fundamental ways.

In some industries, like the petroleum industry, you can closely monitor the market and geopolitical trends to learn when circumstances make a crisis more likely. But in every industry, having a strong, well-considered leadership succession plan is an excellent preparatory step against not only crises, but ordinary events that occur over time, like retirements, deaths, and executives moving on to other opportunities.

Many of the skills that executives must demonstrate during crises are the same skills that executive coaching frequently addresses. Communication, decision-making, and delegation are just three examples. Here are some of the ways accomplished leaders are able to handle crises with greater assurance and help their organizations come through them successfully.

By Being Aware That Normal Decision-Making Processes May Break Down in Crisis

Have you noticed how, in some crises, designated leaders do what they do, but other, unexpected leaders emerge and do their part to control the crisis? In 2011, a tornado destroyed the town of Monson, Massachusetts, and local and federal disaster responders played their appointed roles. However, two sisters, Caitria and Morgan O’Neill took it upon themselves to set up a command center in a local church, coordinating residents and volunteers. Seemingly from nowhere, the two emerged as leaders and helped with recovery.

The “command and control” decision-making paradigms that may work ordinary times may not work at all in a crisis situation. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon executives to develop agility, encouraging quick feedback loops, adjusting as the situation unfolds, and learning quickly from mistakes before moving on.

By Demonstrating These Skills 

First and foremost, leaders must recognize they’re in a crisis, moving past denial and coping quickly with the shock that crises bring. Additionally, they must be willing to do the following:

  • Ask for outside help where indicated
  • Observe behavior before interpreting and acting on it
  • Draw upon internal reserves of courage
  • Reiterate their purpose to themselves and others working on the crisis
  • Surround themselves with the right people, rather than “yes men”

Communication is never more important than during times of crisis.

Finally, it is absolutely imperative that leaders communicate regularly and effectively in times of crisis. Under normal working conditions, most people adopt a “no news is good news” attitude, and that’s fine most of the time. In crisis, however, that is turned on its head. In crisis, no news is bad news, and leaders must be prepared and willing to communicate honestly and regularly with everyone affected by the crisis.

Being Willing to “Own” Failure

Second, only to the human heartbreak that some crises bring, the hardest thing for many executives to cope with is ownership of their own failures during the crisis. Deflecting or obfuscating may temporarily lessen the pain, but only temporarily.

We live in a world where news is easier to discover and transmit than ever before in history. In other words, when you make a huge blunder as an executive, people will find out about it. The only way forward is owning and acknowledging mistakes, apologizing, and continuing to address the crisis in responsible and constructive ways.

By Learning from Crisis

Leadership demands that we take away important lessons from every crisis. How can we be prepared for the next crisis if we learn nothing from the one we have just endured? It’s easier to learn those key lessons as executives if we act with authenticity, accountability, and transparency during times of crisis. Furthermore, acting authentically, accountably, and transparently inspires others on all levels to do the same.

Executive coaches regularly work with clients on the skills that tend to show most obviously during crises. Decision-making, communication, owning mistakes, and delegating responsibly are skills that executives regularly focus upon in their coaching sessions. And even if executives never face a major crisis as a leader, those skills have been and will be key to outstanding leadership.

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