Crisis Leadership Behavioural Traits

In our first blog of this two part series we considered individual behavioural traits in the management of crises and how organisations should map the path that culture, and operating norms, need to take when transitioning from business as normal to a crisis footing. We posited that with this awareness individuals could be prepared to adjust their behavioural traits to participate in crises more effectively. Building on this first article this blog focuses the lens on crisis leadership behavioural traits.

In order to provide leadership and take decisions in crises, which are characterized by time pressures and uncertainty, a response architecture with clearly assigned roles and responsibilities must be established. The precise nature of these arrangements will differ between organisations but conceptually, and for the purposes of this exploration, they frequently include an executive level team, often known as the Crisis Management Team (CMT) comprising a chair and C-Suite membership, along with a team that supports the CMT through managing information flows, informing decisions and monitoring resulting actions. This latter team is under the leadership of a senior and experienced individual we will call the Chief of Staff. Each of these key roles (CMT Chair, CMT Members and Chief of Staff) have discreet yet interconnected functions that rely upon the ability of individuals to demonstrate specific crisis leadership traits. Should they fail to do so then leadership will suffer, and the crisis likely deepen.

Let us first consider the CMT Chair. This is a role frequently assumed by the most senior person available, often with limited consideration as to their fit with the role’s challenges. Where attempts are made to define the ideal person, they regularly reflect a grade or position rather than getting to the heart of the responsibilities and corresponding soft skills and behaviours the Chair must display. Organisations need to define practically what it means to Chair the CMT, covering issues of team leadership, direction setting, defining the operational rhythm, providing arbitration and resolution and guiding team procedures. With this knowledge they can distil the skills and behaviours that mark out excellence in this role, such as the ability to listen effectively, handle complexity while remaining flexible, carry out critical thinking, articulate thoughts well to focus efforts, be persuasive and able to influence, have personal grip and authority, be confident and instil confidence in others. Clarity as to the desired traits informs selection and preparation of potential CMT Chairs.

CMT Members likewise may find themselves with a role solely by dint of their day to day function or job title. Yet qualifying criteria for membership should acknowledge the need to be a source of specific expertise coupled with the ability to provide cogent briefings, participate as equals in discussions, challenge assumptions and support others. CMT Members require the strength of character to remain disciplined and measured, to have an open mind without being easily distracted and be able to provide foresight through critical analysis. They must support the Chair and collaborate with fellow team members whilst retaining the ability to constructively speak truth to power.

Considering the Chief of Staff as little more than the ‘top board maker’, as some are apt to do, and assigning individuals to this role accordingly is a grave error. This individual has a pivotal function to play in managing a support team, including coordinating information flows, gaining situational awareness, establishing priorities and options, briefing the CMT and coordinating with others. This is a significant ask requiring traits such as the ability to focus on key issues, conduct critical thinking, provide oversight and communicate effectively. They must have the capacity to collaborate and build rapport with a laser focus on delivering solutions. This requires decisiveness, demonstrated by a willingness to take difficult decisions, coupled with moral courage.

Organisations need to be clear on the practical requirements placed on crisis leaders so they can map the desired crisis leadership behavioural traits. This understanding can be used to inform the selection and preparation of individuals assigned to crisis leadership roles so as to maximise the likelihood of their delivering success.