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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Leading through critical times

Posted on 24th March 2020 at 09:34am

Alan Baldwin, a former chief police officer who specialises in critical decision making, leading through crises and long-term planning offers his thoughts about leadership in these turbulent times in the first of a series of blogs.

Over the last week I have seen many good examples of leadership and decision-making in critical circumstances. I have also seen some pretty poor ones too. More often, I have seen leaders paralysed owing to the unprecedented nature of what they face and their lack of knowledge and experience in dealing with situations such as these.

Criticality needs decisions to be made. Speed, in times of emergency response, trumps perfection. It needs organisations to build and maintain momentum. As far as possible given the time available, it needs leaders to understand the situation and what is fact and what is assumption. It needs leaders to be confident to make fast-time critical decisions and be prepared to adapt and change as information comes in. Above all, it requires confidence to make decisions with incomplete, ambiguous and complex information, often laden with emotion.

The best leaders, particularly in times of criticality, recognise their own shortcomings (we all have them) and ensure that the people around them fill these gaps. The best leaders in times of criticality take their people with them, keeping them informed and treating them like adults – telling them what they don’t know and also that things can change. The best leaders in criticality are clear, concise thinkers who listen, consider, decide and communicate. Then they go back round the cycle again. And again.

The best leaders also know their tipping points – when doing something is less of a risk than not doing it.

In my experience, this applies to leaders of big organisations and small, emergency services, the military and public and private organisations. It also applies to families and communities. The bottom line is that it is about people.

Here are some basic priority actions and behaviours vital to leading through critical times:

  • Understand what information you have and how reliable it is
  • Know your information gaps and try to fill them but still take decisions while doing so.
  • Understand as best you can the risks, threats and opportunities attached to it and the time you have
  • Know who all the relevant people involved and affected are
  • Understand what you are trying to achieve and be prepared to change this as you go
  • Make decisions. Build a plan. Understand that “doing things right” isn’t always the same as “doing the right thing”
  • Balance the “wolf at the door” with “decorating the back bedroom for next year’s potential visitors”
  • Have a governance battle rhythm with all your key people
  • Seek help and support where necessary
  • Where appropriate record why you decided what you decided
  • Be visible
  • Be available
  • Be a swan
  • Keep communicating
  • Keep reviewing regularly
  • Don’t stand still
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