Leading in a Crisis

In The Financial Times recently I was interested to read the former prime ministerial communications chief, Alistair Campbell, write in a relatively non-partisan style about leadership and tone in the adversity of the UK’s recent flooding, “As the crisis deepens, power structures need to be clear, and Mr Cameron’s ‘I am taking charge’ message was the right one. But taking charge does not mean the prime minister should become an armchair engineer taking decisions on drainage systems. That is the point of having agency experts; ministers should support, not undermine them.”

The article on crisis leadership, published on 14 February, with a clear message to collaborate with the different talents within a team, also observed that from Campbell’s view, “Mr Cameron likes to be out front. But he should spread the load. His cabinet is not blessed with empathetic talent but he should choose the ministers who are best at dealing with anxious or angry people and, regardless of their portfolio, send them to the worst-affected areas as his eyes and ears, to absorb the problems and make sure they are dealt with.”

As someone who has led in different roles myself and regularly sees leadership in conflict situations through my work as a commercial mediator it is always intriguing to see how leadership is exhibited in the political arena. In any large complex organisation (the government of the UK being no exception) there will be layered challenges in setting a successful course through a crisis or a conflict. Has the leadership team got the right qualities to manage the tasks required? Is everyone singing the same tune to help get the job done and if not is someone taking onboard the reasons why their might be important differences of opinion? Are the key stakeholders being included or at least kept informed to ensure outcomes are appropriate and well-received?

Undoubtedly tone can make a huge difference to successful outcomes, something I regularly see as a mediator and when appropriate I will always try to foster productive tone between the leaders of parties in a dispute. Alistair Campbell draws a comparison between the early communication in the flooding crisis where there was reference to blame and a use of technical jargon juxtaposed with a calm fact based yet empathetic approach (in particular he cites the positive tone of Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones as an example of this latter approach).

The flooding of 2014, like the flooding of 2007, has been an awful ordeal for those it has affected and unsurprisingly there are heightened emotions around the subject. Some of the policies around the crisis have now led to political differences much in the way that when an organisation encounters grave difficulties it can generate into a boardroom spats with sometimes disabling consequences. The responsibility of a leader is to find a route through this. Alistair Campbell also notes on the role of the leader looking at prevention as well as solution or restitution, “The airwaves are full of “expert opinion” setting out where money should be spent. But the task of leadership is to decide what priority flood and storm defence should have compared with schools and hospitals, for example.” These are all issues we understand as Mediators navigating conflict and coaching and advising others how to make a break through in challenging situations.

The thrust of Campbell’s piece (perhaps unsurprisingly for the man known as the ‘king of spin’) is that effective communication is a key component of leadership when handling a crisis. However this is close to what Mediators also do in a conflict, recalibrating communication to get the message across and help people move forward. The challenge of responding to a crisis can be monumental, as can the challenge of bringing along with you the opinion of those you need to lead. Yet there is, in my view, no magic formula to leadership, it is a tapestry of abilities and skills applied by one (or more) individuals that can help navigate a path through adversity and on to a new chapter. The one tip I would give from my perspective as a professional neutral is never be afraid to seek outside help to overcome a crisis.

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