Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Leading in a crisis

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

By Ken Morgan, Sunday, 5 April 2020

The COVID19 crisis is the most disruptive phenomenon our society has experienced since the Second World War.  It’s social, psychological, and economic impacts are yet to be fully appreciated. Different leadership is required in a crisis to the more stable and predictable periods, where strategy can be developed and rolled-out over time.  The leader’s priorities shift from the strategic to the immediate, from pursuing the ideal in the long-term to averting disaster in the short-term. When disaster threatens, clarity and decisiveness are suddenly preferable to consultation and inclusiveness.

While the actual tactics adopted in response to the sudden challenge will be unique to each organisation, effective leadership in a crisis follows an identifiable, three-phase pattern.

The first phase requires directive and decisive leadership to stabilise the situation.  On 4 November 2010, Qantas Flight 32, an Airbus A380 under the command of Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny, experienced an uncontained failure of one of its four engines, four minutes after departing Singapore’s Changi Airport.

Despite the port-side landing gear being damaged and fire developing in a fuel tank, hours later, the aircraft was safely back on the ground with no loss of life.  Champion de Crespigny was hailed as a hero for his exceptional airmanship.

In moments of crisis, the prevailing plan is abandoned.  Immediately after the engine failed, Captain Richard de Crespigny took a series of rapid and decisive actions, giving clear and direct orders, wrestling the controls of the stricken aircraft to achieve stability, even before he knew the extent of the damage.  There was no time for consulting stakeholders and weighing up options.  The planning horizon shortened to seconds. Forgetting the intended destination of Sydney, the entire focus became keeping the aircraft in the air and under control. 

In identifying six leadership styles with the leadership repertoire, Daniel Goleman reserves commanding leadership for emergencies or dealing with acute problems.  While problematic in most other situations, decisive leadership that gives clear and unequivocal direction serves to bring calm and order, enabling others to think and act responsibly rather than giving way to panic.

By this time in the COVID19 crisis, most organisations have attained some stability, making choices about how work and services might continue by distance, and how leadership will function.  For some organisations, the only option has been to close.  Leaders in this phase report experiencing ‘decision fatigue’ after a couple of weeks of making dozens of quick decisions to adapt the organisation to new realities.

This is not the time for perfection.  ‘Good enough’ decisions that give some degree of stability and certainty are the order of the day.  There will be complaints and criticisms, best taken with a grain of salt.

The second phase requires leadership that is both decisive and inclusive to Normalise the environment so that the organisation can function. Once Captain de Crespigny had determined that the aircraft could be controlled and maintain altitude, he worked with the flight crew and air traffic controllers to figure out a plan to get the plane back on the ground.  This took nearly two hours.

Once an organisation has figured out whether it can continue operating and has set up the basic means to do so, the leader’s task is to determine what other issues need to be addressed and to gain the involvement of other people.  Further, the leader’s role is to keep their constituents reassured and informed.  The rapid-fire commands of the first phase give way to a more considered approach. The leader must hold unswervingly to immediate priorities while engaging the effort and expertise of others.  It’s time for the hurried, ’good enough’ solutions of the first phase to be amended and refined. 

Most organisations are now trying to ensure connection with their constituents: staff, customers, clients, and partner organisations.  This usually means using existing structures to map out who’s connected to whom, and mobilising mid-level leaders to intentionally build and maintain connection.  The future of the organisation may well depend on the quality of these connections.  This cannot be left to chance or instinct.  An intentional, structured, and accountable approach is required.

While we humans have massive forebrains that afford us unique abilities, in times of crisis we tend to lose access to our higher capacities and revert to the instincts we share with other social mammals.  The normalising phase requires broadening the involvement of constituents to the highest possible extent.  However, like macaques and antelopes, a leadership team faced with a threat will impulsively hunker together.  Togetherness is comforting.  The frequency and length of meetings is more a product of anxiety than the volume of items for determination.  The leader’s role here is to keep their team on-task and efficient in their decision-making, even while the intensity makes thinking difficult. 

Without an intentional effort to counter the drift, the distance between senior leaders and the rest of the organisation will expand.  A conscious decision is required to actively raise the level of contact and connection across the organisation.  CEOs and principals must find a way to provide a reassuring presence, even while confined to quarters.

Involvement fosters commitment, so getting as many constituents involved in maintaining the organisation’s modified operations serves to preserve and build engagement at a time when there’s a risk of people disengaging.  Thoughtful supervisors increase the frequency of contact with their workers, blending pastoral care with attention to responsibilities.

The third phase requires leadership that is goal-directed to Mobilise action in light of new realities.

Once the crippled A380 had landed safely, Captain de Crespigny took it upon himself to personally debrief the entire passenger group in the terminal, patiently explaining what had happened, what would happen, and offering his mobile phone number.  His thoughtfulness turned a potential PR disaster into a masterstroke, validating Qantas’ claim that they’re the safest airline because they have the best flight crew. 

Rather than ‘waiting it out’, organisations will do well to identify opportunities created by the crisis.  Already breweries have pivoted to making hand sanitizer while automakers are tooling up to make ventilators.  Re-purposing latent capacity may be a means of survival when demand plummets for and organisation’s regular products and services.

Further, goal-directed behaviour is calming.  Instead of getting caught in doom loop thinking focused on threat, the pursuit of a goal mobilises the brain’s higher capacities and fosters a sense of agency.  The leader who can direct their organisations effort toward a productive adaption to the crisis cultivates calm, resolve, and hope: commodities currently in shorter supply than toilet paper.

Ken Morgan is a Melbourne-based writer, consultant, and coach. He is a graduate of the Family Systems Institute’s (FSI) Certificate program, an active member of the FSI graduate community, and chair of the FSI Board of Directors.

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