Leadership abilities Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

Having effective leadership in place is essential for any business to thrive. Normal day-to-day activities require a leader who conveys a clear vision, inspires confidence, communicates clearly and operates ethically.

The importance of strong leadership is magnified in the event of a crisis. And at some point, every entity will be faced with a crisis of some sort. Being properly prepared to handle the inevitable calamity can make a good leader a great one, says Mark Relyea, adjunct professor at Woodbury University.

“We define our leadership capabilities by our performance in crisis situations,” he points out. “Everything that you are as a leader becomes exemplified when you’re thrown into a crisis.”

Smart Business spoke with Relyea about how to avoid common mistakes that leaders make during crisis situations, how to reduce employee fear and anxiety, and the importance of situational leadership.

What are the first steps that management should take in the event of a crisis?

Long before we ever find ourselves in crises, we should have recognized that we’re going to face them and implement processes that are going to help us deal with them.

Organizations strengthen themselves and prepare for critical incidents by instituting sound leadership practices. You want to make sure the people in the organization know they’re capable of addressing a crisis, minimizing damage and bringing the incident to a successful conclusion. If you have an organization put together like this, when a crisis comes, you’re ready.

What are some common mistakes that leaders make during a crisis and how can these be avoided?

Probably the biggest mistake leaders can make is failing to maintain their credibility. People are watching over us at all times, so it’s important to lead by example and do what we say. Perceptions are everything to the credibility of a leader.

Another common mistake is that when leaders are thrown into crises situations, they feel like they have to take an autocratic leadership approach. It’s usually a mistake to suddenly hold yourself responsible for coming up with all of the answers if you don’t normally do this. During a crisis, the leader needs to make the final decisions, but not excluding the management team that he or she has depended on in the past.

Finally, in times of crises, it’s human nature to become frustrated with other people, but leaders need to avoid venting because it doesn’t usually help. Instead, these feelings need to be replaced with positive action. You want to replace complaints and blame with sound problem analysis and good tactical communication.

How should communication be handled?

Communication is everything to a leader, especially in a time of crisis. Good leaders are capable of presenting clear, consistent messages. Colin Powell says that good leaders are great simplifiers. Keep it simple, but make sure people understand the message.

Some of the messages can be sent out in writing, but there is no replacement for the spoken word when it comes to motivating people. Spoken words are powerful. A leader needs to be out, be seen and be heard. Also, leaders need to keep their personnel informed about what the problem is and what they’re doing to resolve it.

How can employee fear and anxiety be reduced?

It’s important to address employee fear and anxiety, because if you can reduce these issues, people will perform better. Every organization is going to have a crisis at some point, so employees should be prepared.

You want to implement practical exercises like walkthroughs. When you’re hit with a crisis, you want to frame it as a challenge — an opportunity to solve a problem.

One thing you don’t want to do, however, is burden employees by giving them tasks that they can’t handle. Be positive in your communication and make sure the action plan is being followed. The bottom line is that confidence and being positive is contagious. Team members have to believe that they can handle the problem and they have to see their role as far as the solution goes.

What type of leadership style tends to be most effective in a crisis situation?

The type of leadership that is appropriate is situational and will be determined by the nature of the problem and the people that you are working with. Sometimes, the problem will require that the leader take a directive approach. Other times, the problem will call for creative personnel to be given a long leash.

A leader needs to be aware of what type of leadership is going to inspire the people that he or she is depending upon.

MARK RELYEA is adjunct professor at Woodbury University. Reach him at MFRelyea@lasd.org or (909) 709-6887.