What are the biggest mistakes leaders can make in a crisis?

Covid-19 | Covid-19 Advice | Employment & Skills | Reports

Written by Kate Cooper, Head of Research, Policy and Standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management

Many of us learn so much about leadership and management by experience, particularly when we see them done badly. When you’re not in a leadership position, it is so easy to see leaders and managers making dreadful mistakes; for example, you experience so profoundly the impact of poor decisions, poor communication, unfair treatment and callous indifference to the needs of all of the people lower down the organisation.

This view makes it easier to identify things that leaders shouldn’t do and conclude they are poor leaders. However, if we look at these decisions more generously, from a kinder point of view, then we can see it is not necessarily because these leaders are Machiavellian, narcissistic, evil or full of hubris. They may well be acting with the best intentions.

At the moment people are in survival mode, responding to a very different spring/summer 2020 than was laid down in the best and most detailed strategic plans. So, during these difficult and unpredictable times, what mistakes can a leader make in a crisis and how can they overcome them?

Self-awareness

The first mistake a leader can make is not really knowing themselves. Many leaders will make mistakes based on a false understanding of their own strengths, thinking they are ‘good’ in a crisis, that they’re decisive – or even worse, a ‘strong leader’ – because they haven’t spent time really exploring their motivations or uncovered their values. They haven’t found out what drives them and asked other people what they think they are ‘really like.’ These people might have a superficial understanding and some insight, but of course, the more senior you become, the more filtered that feedback will be.

A leader who is not self-aware but has quite a positive view of themselves as a leader, will actually say one thing and behave quite differently. They’ll be absolutely oblivious, because of an inaccurate self-image.

Vision

Secondly, we often hear that leaders are supposed to have a vision; a plan for the future they’re going to create. The real challenge for leaders is to then communicate this vision and bring people with them. It is a mistake to think that your blueprint is going to be what everybody’s going to buy into and accept – and if you only communicate it properly, it will somehow happen.

The future is always uncertain, so leaders are only guessing what might happen; but now more than ever, events and circumstances are changing, so the vision must be adapted accordingly. It will also be adapted by the people who will deliver that vision, however, their understanding won’t align 100 per cent with the leader’s. When the leader explains their vision, it will change slightly and imperceptibly, but it will not be the same once communicated and discussed.

The mistake here is to cling too tightly to the belief that the vision is going to be achieved. It might be a great outline of what might happen, as it should get conversations going, gather energy and give people focus. But unless the leader enables, allows and encourages others to share that vision, modifying and flexing it accordingly to the people who are going to deliver it, it is going to fail – and it won’t be their fault. It will be the fault of the leader, not because it wasn’t communicated well but because the leader didn’t involve people effectively.

Understanding results

A third mistake that leaders make is to confuse hard work for delivering results and the idea that if you work tirelessly, then somehow your rewards should be greater. Leaders can work tirelessly on the wrong things, which don’t deliver the performance or the outcomes they want. But this might leave them with a sense of being aggrieved, if the work didn’t result in the rewards they felt they deserved.

Working tirelessly is not always enough; it’s actually being able to provide evidence of success and working on the right things that leads to a successful outcome. This can be achieved when there’s an honesty about how success is measured or an understanding of the indicators. So, in two years’ time, how will the leader be able to say ‘this is what I have achieved?’ Too often, leaders are not rewarded for what they’ve achieved, but what they say they’re going to achieve.

Bonuses are paid too early, rewarding potential, aspiration and a brilliant vision rather than results. When the future is particularly uncertain, a leader who speaks with confidence and certainty is comforting, so it is a mistake to believe that anyone is able to control the future. There are leaders who confuse hard work, ambition and being able to sell a good idea with achievement.

Ownership and continuity planning

Another big mistake for a leader is not being able to let go of an idea that they believe they ’own’. If a plan hasn’t worked, then it hasn’t worked, however hard one has tried.

Ownership is very closely linked to achievement and to leaders recognising their own agency. Many leaders make the big mistake of thinking that somehow they were blameless and there were a lot of external factors that meant things didn’t go well, but somehow the result was out of their control.

Much about leading and managing an organisation is out of one’s control. For example, leaders cannot control how people understand what they say or what people say about them when they’re not there, but they can take ownership of their own part in those events and understand their contribution to making things happen, in responding to external events.

Not engaging in sufficient continuity planning is a big mistake. What will leaders do if things are different and requires them to be different? For example, how will they react to key personnel leaving, a major supplier going out of business or losing an important customer? Leaders need to own that worst case scenario and prepare for it – it’s not good enough if they just react afterwards once they’ve lost their customer, supplier or chief financial officer.

Collaboration

Finally, to those leaders I referred to at the beginning – the narcissists, megalomaniacs and the people who have far more confidence than ability, who don’t understand that any sort of complex situation or organisational activity requires collaboration, not just direction and instruction.

Collaboration means building relationships with all of your stakeholders, not just having a few key people as your favourites. Leaders must work hard at these relationships, not just with those people they think are going to give them an advantage.

As Peter Drucker said, you don’t have to like people to work with them, but you do have to work at relationships. Those relationships will be across not only your senior team, board, and colleagues at the same level in the organisation, but with everyone you meet.

This is helped by an ability to communicate with them effectively and to value the contribution they’re making. You need an awareness that power is fluid and a negotiation, not a constant. It will change as circumstances and events evolve, so the power relations between leaders and the people around them change. They’ll need to work hard all the time with colleagues, as they enjoy working with people, but also because they are trusted and care about results, take ownership for their part in events and have an acknowledgement that achieving great results isn’t a solo endeavour.

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