Strong leadership can make or break a company’s reputation in a crisis. Without the clarity and direction a leader brings, even the best crisis communications teams will founder.
A leader will determine the path of the crisis, and its outcome. They are ultimately accountable for how the company responds. They will take responsibility for the company’s actions, make tough decisions and authorise budget to put right problems. They will be the public face of the company.
We tend to associate leadership with values of strength, even ruthlessness. But I believe a good leader has to be authentic, have empathy, and sometimes show vulnerability.
A Harvard Business Review study shows that one of the top leadership skills is to make people feel safe. This will be tested to the limit in a crisis situation. But a leader who is trusted – who does what they say they will do, and behaves in a way that reinforces the company values and ethics – will create a feeling of safety and lead their company out of the crisis with their reputation intact. Sometimes that means being vulnerable, saying sorry and admitting when you’ve made a mistake. Then the real test comes in the decisions you make and the action you take to put things right.
Leadership skills are tested to the limit during a crisis. We expect business leaders to be open and communicate through the crisis, to be honest and transparent. The markets respond when a leader speaks; getting it wrong can wipe millions off the value of the company and cost the leader their job.
This is my top 10 list of what leaders should focus on during a crisis:
- Set the desired outcome of the crisis. People will look to you and follow how you behave.
- Listen. What are people telling you, both within the company and outside it?
- Empower your team, but support them when they need it. A crisis can be stressful and high-pressure.
- Choose your team carefully. You need people around you who will be honest with you, so you know what you’re facing. But be wary of disruptors who can derail constructive action.
- Reinforce company values. Every decision you make, think: what does this say about my company? What does it say about me?
- Be prepared to make tough decisions. They could cost the company in the short-term, but if you do the right thing, you have a better chance of survival in the long-term.
- Express empathy. See things from the point of view of those most affected by the crisis.
- Take time out to think. The closer you are to the day-to-day management of the crisis, the harder it is to make clear decisions. You need a bit of distance.
- Be yourself. Don’t be swayed by lawyers to retreat behind language that isn’t authentic. It will sound strange and people will see through it.
- Lead from the front. Be seen to act, by the media, by your customers, by your employees.
It takes real courage to stick to your values in a crisis, and to do the right thing. It can feel safer to retreat into corporate legal language, to avoid liability (even when the business is liable) and to hide. But the brave path is to make those tough decisions that might cost the business in the short term, but that will ensure its survival in the long term.