Articles

What Legitimate Leaders Do In Times Of Crisis

March 23, 2020 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology, Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

Any group, any collective, is simply a reflection of those who lead it. Who you are as a leader, in other words, is reflected in those around you. This is true at any time but particularly in difficult times.

A crisis may or may not build character, but it definitely reveals character.

What legitimate leaders do in adverse conditions therefore, first and foremost, is look at themselves. They make themselves the project, knowing that the best they can do in tough times is set the example for others to follow. More specifically, they rise to the occasion by doing four things.

1. THEY SHOW UP AND STAY THE PACE

Legitimate leaders don’t run away or abandon ship like the captains of the Greek cruise ship Oceanos (1991) and the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia (2012). They do their duty. They don’t manage the crisis at a distance. They go to the frontline, to the scene of disaster. They are there in the trenches with their people and share the dangers with them. More than at any other time, they demonstrate genuine care or concern for their employees’ wellbeing. They bear the same burdens and do not exclude themselves from them. They sacrifice as much or more than their people do.

2. THEY STAY CALM AND ARE OPTIMISTIC BUT REALISTIC

Rudyard Kipling’s famous inspirational poem “If” begins with, “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs …” Legitimate leaders stay calm in times of calamity. Above all, they don’t panic. They remain cool under fire. They keep a tight rein on their emotions. If not serene, they are at least not overly agitated or irrational. Like Admiral James Stockdale, who spent eight years in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam war, they balance optimism with reality. They remain convinced of a positive outcome while facing up to the hard facts in the present. Rather than burying their heads in the sand they accept the facts no matter how brutal they are.

3.  THEY FOCUS ON WHAT THEY HAVE CONTROL OVER AND ACT

Legitimate leaders operate from the standpoint that they may not be in full control of what happens but are absolutely in control of their response to what happens. They understand that there are things that are up to us and things that are not up to us. Consequently, they separate that which they can influence from that which they cannot. Then they focus their time and energies on what they do have control over – that is, what is in their hands. They don’t allow themselves to be distracted by external factors over which they have no influence. And they focus their efforts during the crisis where they can have the greatest impact. Above all, they act – they take decisions rather than falling foul to paralysis by analysis. They move forward and adjust course as they go.

4.  THEY DO THE RIGHT THING

Legitimate leaders recognise that we all have needs and that, unless we deliberately choose otherwise, we will naturally act to fulfill them. That is, we will do the expedient or self-serving rather than the right thing. Legitimate leaders are acutely aware of their own needs, fears and desires in the situation. But they don’t act on them. Rather, they find within themselves the capacity to rise above or even contradict their needs in order to do the right thing. Throughout the crisis they are values- not needs-driven. They reflect on what the situation in front of them requires of them – whether generosity or courage are called for. They then do the courageous or generous thing, whichever is most appropriate at the time.

In a crisis leaders are truly tested. What any crisis tests in essence is a leader’s capacity for kindness, selflessness and bravery. Those who pass the test with flying colours engender trust and loyalty; those who don’t engender the opposite.

Wendy Lambourne
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