Leading in times of crisis

The leadership competencies that made a difference on Sept. 11
By Rachel Azzopardi
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/23/2002

It’s a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Which comes first — the leader or the leadership competencies? Although it is an old debate, it’s become a renewed topic of interest after Sept. 11.

That day, and during those that followed, employees were awash in fear and uncertainty. It was a time for corporate leaders to step up and show their mettle. The same is true in any crisis situation affecting staff. Sept. 11 provides examples of how leaders made a difference. Good leadership became essential if employees were return to work rather than remain home tuned to CNN.

But what type of leadership was needed? What were the leadership competencies that made the difference in motivating employees? And can these competencies be taught or are they inherent to the individual, like charisma?

Many corporate leaders of international New York-based firms appeared to change their style mid-stream and demonstrate leadership that calmed and motivated employees — similar to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s metamorphosis from an argumentative, hard–driving politician to a calm, focused and inspiring leader.

Among the competencies a good leader possesses, three areas or activities key to motivating employees in times of fear can be learned and taught: empathy/visibility, communication/follow-through and demonstrating confidence/problem-solving.

The importance of empathy and visibility

Leaders have been described as those who achieve results through people; they inspire and are followed because people believe in them. Trauma counsellors working with corporate leaders in New York immediately following the events of Sept. 11 strongly encouraged CEOs to interact with their staff.

While addressing a room full of employees, one senior vice-president was moved to tears and because he expressed his own vulnerability and empathy, he was able to connect with every individual in the room, simultaneously normalizing their own emotions.

In the past, the typical CEO would generally limit the time spent with subordinates to avoid “getting too close” to the organization’s collective angst. In doing so, he sends out a very clear message that he is not able to manage the people side of the business. A CEO who is holed up in his office during a crisis is doing little to show he is willing to hear and understand the issues at hand.

But empathy isn’t a cloak one can don at the last moment. The catastrophe of Sept. 11 has taught a valuable lesson: leaders have to be well known by their employees, or in the event of a crisis they simply won’t be believable. A CEO who allows himself to be visibly emotional, vulnerable, or even just approachable, will do much to build a sense of unity within the organization.

Communication and follow-through

Good communication is essential — a cliché that resonates with truth in times of crisis. A great leader is well informed, particularly in a period of upheaval, and projects an aura of quiet assurance and sincerity in communicating information to staff.

Leaders present their vision with sensitivity to the needs of those they want to reach. And yet it’s common for those in senior roles to shift to autocratic mode during a crisis.

One senior executive in New York realized that in doing this he alienated some of his employees. He learned that he was right to make decisions quickly and with authority, but that this can be accomplished without alienating employees.

The good leader also needs to follow-through on what he tells staff. A leader will determine that rapid response is needed after a crisis — and transfer those needs into action consistently. Congruency between what is said to be important and what is delivered is of great significance to employees during a time of upheaval.

And communication continues to be important after the urgency of the immediate crisis subsides.

Those employees affected by the events of Sept. 11 express ongoing concern for their personal safety and security. Many experienced a great deal of personal loss. But as the chaos turned to routine, and life returned to some semblance of normal, they sought communication that told them they could begin to move forward again.

Demonstrating confidence and problem-solving

The next logical core competency for what has become a new age of leaders is modeling the behaviours that are being communicated. Giuliani modeled reasonable problem-solving at a time when reason seemed a thing of the past.

One large corporation at ground zero exemplified the problem-solving skills required during the tragedy by mobilizing hundreds of people to help. The corporate culture was conducive to change, and thus employees were able to respond creatively to problems.

Disaster management and recovery teams in New York heard employees speak readily of the sources of support that they relied upon to help them cope. Along with family, friends and colleagues, they spoke of their reliance on their workplace leaders to help them adjust to the changes they experienced.

Great leaders articulate visions that utilize the collective creativity of those around them and often deflect praise to their colleagues. Directives are focused on what is achievable in the here and now and they instill in others the confidence that is required to mould strategic directions into realistic actions.

Leadership competencies revisited

Leaders create a vision, analyze situations and develop strategies, instill momentum and build relationships. They also listen and adapt to feedback; solve problems and make critical decisions in times of great change. Organizations in crisis, like those recovering from the events of Sept. 11, require leaders who encompass all of these qualities and more, because for these organizations the path of business recovery may be somewhat obscure.

Good leaders need to be aware that for their employees, recovery from trauma is very much about regaining personal power and confidence, feeling supported, valued and connected to others. Leaders need to take into account the emotional tone of their workplaces, and understand and address the human part of the crisis with the same level of insight as they do their corporate and business challenges.

They should be sensitive to the needs of a demoralized workforce by providing counselling as needed. A good leader places importance on both the human need for stability and the business challenge of moving forward.

Rachel Azzopardi is the communications manager at FGI, a global provider of disaster management and recovery programs, international EAPs, security training and other human resource support programs. Soon after Sept. 11, FGI provided trauma response intervention in New York, working with a number of corporate leaders, identifying competencies and activities that are key to motivating employees in times of fear. She can be reached at (905) 886-2157 or razzopar@fgiworld.com.

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