Learning and Development: An Action Plan for Leadership in a Crisis


Soft skills, such as leadership in a crisis, sometimes get overlooked when planning learning and development programs. As the world of business grows more complicated, having teams that can easily adapt and respond to the unexpected becomes more necessary. 

Although human resources teams might find soft skills training to be a harder sell to senior executives, it is important to the organization’s longterm stability. After all, the pandemic has demonstrated how unpredictable business can be in the twenty-first century. 

In a session at the 2021 HR Exchange Live: Corporate Learning event, Vin Russo, product marketing manager at Coursera, which recently launched its Leadership Academy, a series of courses designed to help teams learn how to respond to rapidly changing times, shared a sample course from Dr. Mike Barger, executive director of Ross Online at the University of Michigan. 

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“Employees across the board are increasingly expected to make consequential decisions that align with corporate strategy and culture,” said Russo in his introduction of Barger. “It’s important therefore that they be equipped with relevant leadership skills.”

A Time for Leadership

Indeed, these times call for leaders, who can quickly and deftly respond to the unexpected, said Barger. He referred to the military term VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. 

“I see lots of parallels between that VUCA and military environment and what we face in business today,” said Barger. “It’s an incredibly challenging time for business leaders to know how to navigate this environment that seems to be constantly changing and handing us significant challenges that many of us have never seen before.” 

One of the first skills leaders must pick up when confronting challenges and crisis is understanding all the stakeholders involved.

“Having a sense of how stakeholders are going to respond or react to certain types of crises, allows you to start to build both communications and stakeholder engagement strategies,” said Barger.

A Case Study in Crisis Management

For example, when the oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, it resulted in the death of 11 people, the injuries of 17 others, and the largest oil spill in the history of marine oil drilling operations.

What makes it a great case study in crisis is that three different companies – BP, Transocean, and Hyundai Heavy Engineering, which built the platform – all had to confront a number of stakeholders, including executives, employees, families of employees, media, and more. 

“It’s illustrative of the fact that the impact of a crisis can be very difficult for crisis leaders to see,” said Barger. “As crisis leaders, a good part of our responsability is determining who it is that is being impacted by the crisis at hand and how we can engage those crisis groups more effectively.” 

To begin, organizations need to recognize the realities of business today. The world has grown more complex, which means there’s more potential for crises big and small. 

“Before leaders thought that crises just shouldn’t happen on your watch,” said Barger. “What we’re all seeing now in the business world is that crises aren’t so much an ‘if’ anymore as a ‘when.’ The business world is going to put us in these situations. We are going to have to deal with them.”

In the course, participants learn about the expectations people have of their leaders when facing tough times. In a crisis people want someone who takes charge and demonstrates a desire to help them navigate the problem. In addition, they want to believe in the leaders who stand before them. Finally, while they don’t expect anyone to be perfect, they want someone who is visible, courageous, and committed to getting them through the crisis effectively. 

A characteristic that leaders must demonstrate is ownership and a willingness to do the work of building trust. Barger explained that leaders in crisis must be “the” source of facts. They have to help the organization develop resilience in the face of whatever is happening and continue to respond to the various stakeholders. 

How to Make a Plan for Crises

Barger suggested borrowing from the Army and taking on the mantra “Be, know, do.” Here’s his advice: 

  • Be: “Visible, caring, empathetic, calm, assertive.” 
  • Know: “Vision, values, guiding principles”
  • Do: “Communicate, make decisions with limited information, take responsability, engage your stakeholders.” 

In fact, one of the mistakes leaders should avoid during any crisis is taking too long and thinking too hard about decisions. Part of the art of leadership in these hard times is the ability to think quickly on your feet and make decisions despite having limited information. 

To ensure your crisis action plan works, you must take charge, understand circumstances, define the problem, rank options, move decisevely, eliminate the cause, and prevent recurrence, said Barger.  

Leadership in crisis is a necessity for today’s organizations. There are simply too many abrupt changes and disruptions that leaders have to confront. To prepare for a crisis, leaders have to be prepared to know their stakeholders, communicate well, and make decisions even if they don’t have all the information at hand. Most importantly, they have to instill confidence in their desire to help others navigate the problem at hand. 

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko for Pexels

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