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Responding in a crisis

We had just finished a lovely brunch to celebrate Mother’s day and were strolling back home from Kalk Bay when we noticed a cyclist staring up at the mountain above us. On looking to see what was so important, we saw a house with quitre a bit of smoke pouring out of it. I began running to see if there was a real issue. (more about the “why” later)

Somewhat out of breath, I reached the house half way up the hill to discover……… a gentleman using rather wet wood on his afternoon braai!

So why did I run? Some 12 years ago, I was in a suburb of Johannesburg whilst at a conference. Looking down the road, we saw what appeared to be a garden fire with quite a lot of smoke. Something didn’t look right, so I ran down to the house only to discover…… a fierce fire about to “jump”from the kitchen into the ceiling. A young teenage girl was frying chips with oil, and was alone at home. The oil had caught alight and she had gone into a panic. The crisis ended well with no injuries and no significant damage to the kitchen. (Apart from cleaning up after extinguishing the fire)

The point I am trying to make? You never quite know if the smoke you see is a serious fire or just a braai gone wrong. Leaders learn to respond quickly and calmly in crisis. I have included some tips from John Baldoni of the Harvard review. Perhaps you don’t currently face a crisis in your business or life. Odds are you probably will. These tips may help when the next big storm or fire hits.

1. Take a moment to figure out what’s going on.
An executive I know experienced a major disruption in service to his company. He was the person in charge and he told me that at the first response meeting everyone started talking at once. The chatter was nervous response — not constructive — so he delegated responsibilities and then called for a subsequent meeting in an hour’s time. This also helped to impose order on a chaotic situation.

2. Act promptly, not hurriedly.
A leader must provide direction and respond to the situation in a timely fashion. But acting hurriedly only makes people nervous. You can act with deliberateness as well as speed. Or as legendary coach John Wooden advised, “Be quick but don’t hurry.”

3. Manage expectations.
When trouble strikes, people want it to be over right now — but seldom is this kind of quick resolution possible. It falls to the leader in charge to address the size and scope of the crisis. You don’t want to alarm people, yet do not be afraid to speak to the magnitude of the situation. Winston Churchill was a master at summing up challenges but offering a response at the same time. As he famously said when taking office in 1940, “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

4. Demonstrate control.
When things are happening quickly, no one may have control, but a leader can assume control. That is, you do not control the disaster — be it man-made or natural — but you can control the response. A leader puts himself into the action and brings the people and resources to bear. Think of Red Adair, who made a name for himself putting out oil fires that no one else could. A raging blaze may seem uncontrollable but Adair knew could control the way it was extinguished.

5. Keep loose.
Not only does this apply to personal demeanour — a leader can never afford to lose composure — it applies to the leader’s ability to adapt rapidly. A hallmark of a crisis is its ability to change quickly; your first response may not be your final response. In these situations, a leader cannot be wedded to a single strategy. She must continue to take in new information, listen carefully and consult with the frontline experts who know what’s happening.

The measure of a leader is often tested during a crisis. And those leaders who can engage directly, but still maintain their sense of perspective, are the ones that will help the organization survive.

Here’s to calm but agile leaders

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