Kind of leadership needed to deal with a crisis effectively

I was in London last month at the time when snow covered the city, to work on a leadership programme with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

One of those with me carried a wonderful book that I then also bought, The Greats on Leadership by Jocelyn Davis.

In it Mr Davis offers summaries of what 24 great authors have had to say over the centuries about different elements and circumstances of leadership, and then discusses these in a contemporary context.

So for instance he builds on Machiavelli’s writing to explore change, Plato’s to examine justice, Bernard Shaw’s to promote vision… and Shakespeare’s to help leaders deal with crises.

Mr Davis turns to Shakespeare’s Henry V for inspiration on the subject, lauding the victor over the greatly superior French forces in the battle of Agincourt as a “learning leader”.

I read this chapter with particular interest as on my return from London I was a member of the faculty delivering the Transformative Leadership programme run jointly by the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication and the Harvard Kennedy School, within which one of my sessions was on the voice of leadership in periods of crisis.

Our whole programme was based on the Adaptive Leadership approach promoted by Ronald Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School, about which I wrote in an earlier column.

Heifetz explains how leadership must be treated as an activity rather than a position, and in his chapter on crisis Davis quotes Heifetz at length on the subject.

The Harvard professor, acknowledges Mr Davis, writes eloquently on the “learning zone” and its importance to teams and organisations in crisis, showing how it exists between the overly cool comfort zone of complacency and the too-hot-to-handle zone of danger and panic.

In normal times we exist in the comfort zone where stress levels are low, but an emergency hurls us into the high-stress danger zone. There, effective leadership as practiced by the likes of Henry V delivers the sharp focus and fast action that overcome the tendency merely to fight, flee or freeze.

Mr Davis then explains more about how to remain in such a zone at these most difficult times. He does this by constructing a chart that shows “Unity” on the vertical axis and “Agility” on the horizontal one, where both need to be high for the learning zone to be alive and well – more so during and after times of crisis.

It’s not so hard for unity to be high in normal circumstances, when there is less urgent need for extreme agility. He calls the upper left quadrant, with high unity and low agility, the “complacency zone”, where signs of impending crisis are met with a chorus of “Around here we always… “.

He then takes us to the lower right quadrant, his “Disconnection zone”, where agility outweighs unity and everyone worries about saving their own skin – the Titanic syndrome. At least as lamentable is the lower left “Blame zone”, where both unity and agility are low and the concern is blame-avoidance.

Finally to Henry V territory, the upper right “Learning zone”, where great leadership first asks how we can resolve our problems and move forward together; then how I contributed to the difficulties and what I must do differently to avoid making the same mistakes again; and only after to examine how they, the other team members, contributed to what happened and how I can coach them to learn and be better prepared for the next crisis.

In the discussion during my session on leadership in crisis the participants — some of whom were in leadership positions in large hospitals — reviewed the recent one at Kenyatta National Hospital, where head surgery was performed on the wrong patient. And later they reflected on how they had dealt with crises that involved their own organisations.

What about you? Are you in the league of Henry V? Or would the Titanic have sunk under your command too? In this volatile and uncertain world of ours, it’s good for all of us to reflect on how effectively we will deal with our next crisis.

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