Crisis leaders need more than competence and character to be effective in a crisis. They need space and balance. They need space/time to intake information, think, decide and communicate. And they need a system that helps them balance their strategic, operational and reputational responsibilities. Performance drops exponentially when this space and balance is diminished or lost so it’s important to design safeguards.
Space vs Overload: Many crisis leaders cannot cope with their assigned workload under crisis conditions. Their job descriptions (JDs) are simply unrealistic, even for experienced crisis leaders. What often seems like a reasonable load of work on paper is often not doable under crisis conditions. Many JDs include management, coordination, facilitation, liaison, and communication tasks that could and should be assigned to others in the team, or to a deputy. This task overload problem is often a relic of copying and adding to templated JDs over time and, I think, because we simply forget to reserve enough space for the less tangible acts of “thinking and deciding”.
Balance vs Tilt: What I call “tilt" is a common issue in most organizations and fairly easy to recognize. Nearly every organization naturally tilts (and pulls the leader) toward operations, reputation or strategy. For example, an engineering company that values operational and technical proficiency tends to tilt/pull the leader towards operational priorities at the expense of communications and strategy, while companies working in the sphere of communications and marketing tend to focus on reputation aspects at the expense of others. Some companies do tilt the leader towards the strategic side, isolating them from operations and reputation tasks, but this is rarer. This tilt is often a relic of company culture, leadership preference, and/or the crisis programme designer.
The Fix: In my experience, one way to fix “tilt and overload" is to simply strip the leader’s JD to the bone, then strip it some more. As the old travel packing tip says: "lay out everything you think you will need, then remove half”. You will still end up with more stuff than you need but it’s a start. Any task that is not "intake-think-decide-communicate” related should be removed and reassigned to another team member, or used as the basis for a new support/deputy role. For example, I always use a crisis coordinator "deputy" role now to handle half of the tasks normally assigned to a crisis leader. And while crisis communication tasks are important, they cannot outbalance the others. A bare-bones crisis leader JD also has the advantage of making it easier to adopt by incoming and less experienced crisis leaders, which is a useful feature given the turnover rate for this position in many organisations.
This bare-bones approach to establishing balance and space significantly improves crisis leadership and team performance, more so than most other design tweaks I’ve tried so far. Leaders tend to feel more liberated to focus on their core tasks and their teams appreciate getting more of what they need from their crisis leader: effective, efficient, reflective and well-balanced leadership.
If you've noticed and tackled these issues in a similar or different way, I'd love to hear about it. Comments can be added below. Thanks.