How good are you in a crisis?

It’s such an important question as a leader these days as so many organisations seem to operate in a perpetual state of ‘crisis management’. No sooner is one crisis over that the next appears…

The targets that ‘must’ be hit…

The HR issues from ‘Hell’…

The PR ‘disasters’…

The funding issues… my God… the funding issues!

In many teams and organisations a key skill for good leaders is being ‘good in a crisis’.

And yet… the ‘crises’ keep coming, don’t they?

Of course you could ask how many of these ‘crises’ are real and how many are simply perceived that way at the time? Are they really life and death? Or will they have been completely forgotten by next week when we’ve moved on to an entirely new ’emergency’?

When you’re constantly battening down the hatches and operating in ‘crisis management’ mode it’s hard to see anything else on the horizon, isn’t it?

You can’t look to the future when your time is taken up fire fighting in the present… or can you?

While teaching a recent NLP Coaching Skills Diploma, we were exploring using NLP for skills transfer in a process known as ‘competency modelling’ and I had the privilege of modelling a brilliant leader from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) who regularly deals with real crises.

As part of his role, he takes charge in major incidents and the decisions he makes really can be a matter of life and death.

The particular skill we were modelling was his ability to remain ‘calm in a crisis’ and in the space of a 20 minute modelling conversation we uncovered a number of key elements with how he deals with these situations effectively.

There were some fascinating insights for all of us in the room and the contrast with how most of us have experienced ‘crisis management’ was profound. So many lessons emerged that each of us could take back into our own lives and workplaces and I’ve highlighted some of the main steps that really struck a chord in this blog.

As you read through them it’s worth considering what difference they might make to your own experience of ‘crisis management’?


Leadership Is Not A Thing… It’s An Ongoing Process

One of the perennial questions in leadership theory is ‘are leaders born or made?’ and one of the most common complaints to be heard in teams, organisations (and in politics!) is ‘there’s no leadership here!’.

From an NLP point of view these aren’t very useful ways of thinking about leadership.

In linguistic terms, ‘Leadership’ is a Nominalisation. It’s a Verb masquerading as a Noun. In other words, ‘Leadership’ is not a thing. It’s an ongoing process. Leadership won’t turn up on Monday morning, take off its coat and get cracking on solving your problems nor can you order it from your local supplier to be delivered at the time you need it. Leadership is the ongoing process of leading people (including yourself) from where they are now to somewhere else. The steps you take in that process and how you take those steps are what make the difference.

During our modelling session we explored the steps that an excellent leader in real crisis situations takes and how he approaches them.


Mental Preparation

As an Area Commander, a key part of his role is to take charge in major incidents. When he gets the call, the incident has already happened and there are crews on the scene already dealing with it. If he is being contacted, he know it’s serious. His role is to co-ordinate and manage the situation to a successful conclusion. He told us that he will be given information as he is in the Fire Car on his way to the scene and so he takes some time on the way to visualise what it’s going to be like and what the potential scenarios may be. This mental preparation may only take a few minutes but it helps him to be ready and at his best when he arrives.


Bringing Calm To The Chaos

He is aware that there may be distressing scenes when he arrives. That people may be in a state of shock, panic, anger etc and that this is an ongoing situation.

Therefore, his guiding principle throughout is to ‘bring calm to the chaos’.

To move towards that aim he is acutely aware that this principle has to be reflected in his own mental and physical state and in everything he does. By remaining calm and co-ordinating those around him to bring ‘calm to the chaos’ it will allow the situation to be dealt with more effectively and efficiently.

How powerful is that?

How often have you experienced a senior leader in a crisis situation who set out with explicit intention of bringing ‘calm to the chaos’… or were they really adding their own personal dose of chaos to an already volatile mix?

What difference would it make if, as a leader, you approached the next ‘crisis’ with the objective of ‘bringing calm to the chaos’?


Get Multiple Perspectives

There is an old Japanese saying that

‘None of us is as smart as all of us.’

Every experience has a number of perspectives and real wisdom in any situation is a function of having access to as many of those perspectives as you can.

On arriving at the scene of a major incident our Area Commander does not take over immediately and explicitly stamp his authority. He knows that there will already be people on the ground dealing with the situation and making decisions. So the first thing he does is to perform what he calls a ‘360’. He goes around and speaks to as many of the team as he can in order to get their perspectives. This simple act does a number of things including:

• giving him the benefit of as many perspectives as possible;

• introducing the team to him so he knows who they are and their roles;

• introducing him to the team so they know who he is and what he is there for;

• building team cohesiveness.

Only when he deems that the time is appropriate and he has the information that he needs does he take charge of the scene.

In his brilliant book ‘The Checklist Manifesto’, Dr Atul Gawande details his journey leading a team for The World Health Organisation to develop a checklist for safer surgery around the World. Atul stresses how important this simple step of taking a few minutes for the ‘360’ has been in producing safer and better outcomes in both the aviation industry and in surgical teams around the globe.

Yet how often in teams and organisations do we see ‘leaders’ who jump straight in as the stereotypical ‘Alpha’ Male/Female; Ego driven to be the ‘hero’; demanding to take charge with no perspective other than their own? In many teams and organisations you can actually witness competing ‘heroes’ vying to take charge in a crisis who can seem to waste more time and energy competing to be seen to be the ‘boss’ than effectively dealing with the situation.

When it really matters, when time really is critical and when lives are at stake, taking those few minutes to get multiple perspectives and to properly gauge the right time to act can make all the difference.


You Can’t Do Everything. You Need To Trust Your Team.

Often the ‘hero’ leader also attempts to micro-manage the situation. They have to be seen to be ‘all over the detail’ and ‘handling’ everything. Yet real leaders in real life and death situations understand that you cannot do everything… or at least, you can’t do everything and do it well.

In the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service they are very conscious at major incidents of operating a ‘span of control’.

Once he has assumed control of a situation, he has no more than 5 people who report in to him. From experience and training he knows that any more than this and you will simply be swamped by the detail and things get missed. Those 5 people each have no more than 5 people who report in to them and so on.

Crucially, you trust your each member of your team to do their job.

In a true crisis, micro-managing far too easily means that you can’t see the wood for the trees.

How different would the response to a crisis be in your organisation if leaders appreciated that they can’t do everything, operated a span of control and actually trusted their team to do their jobs?


Effectiveness Is More Important Than Urgency

Another principle that emerged in our conversation is that effectiveness is more important than urgency. The temptation in a crisis can be for leaders to shout, threaten and generate a sense of urgency… which all too easily leads to ‘headless chicken syndrome’. There’s a lot of activity and plenty of energy but it isn’t actually getting very much done.

It also tends to work its way through the team and can lead to needless panic, fear, anger and even confrontation.

The Area Commander is more interested in ‘what’s effective?’. He wants to get things done as efficiently and effectively as possible.


Learn The Rules, So You Know How To Break Them Effectively

There is a famous quotation often attributed to HH, The Dalai Lama:

‘Learn the rules so you know how to break them effectively.’

Obviously NIFRS train for situations and they are brilliant at what they do. Much like the checklists described by Atul Gawande, they have Standard Operating Procedures for what is considered the safest and most effective course of action in a given situation.

However, sometimes in the real world, in order to save a life or to protect one, it becomes necessary to make a decision that takes you outside these SOPs.

It’s rare and when it happens the Area Commander described it as a physical feeling of apprehension when you know you will have to make this kind of call. Being aware that these kind of decisions could put lives at risk, (including of his own officers), he doesn’t do it lightly and he doesn’t rush in to do it either. Instead he takes time to consider with the team what the risks are and what can be done to mitigate them. Only when this has been done does he make the final call knowing that he and his team have done everything they can in the time they have to achieve their outcome in the safest way possible.

How often do we see teams and organisations locked in crisis management mode repeatedly live up to Einstein’s definition of madness: they repeat the same things over and over again and expect to get a different result. How often do you hear ‘But we’ve always done it this way!’?

In the real world, in a real crisis you must be prepared to adapt to circumstances. When you know the standard procedures in your organisation and understand why they are there, it allows you to think outside box when required and to mitigate the risks while you do so.


If we’re going to spend so much of our time at work ‘fire fighting’, let’s learn the lessons of real fire fighters and choose to bring some calm to the chaos, instead.


Imagine the difference that would make.




OR Training & Personal Development Ltd


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Email: michael@liveitorleadit.com

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