Leading in Emergencies

Leading in emergencies requires the “C” word.

Control.

As more organizations intentionally focus on employee engagement and motivation, leaders are increasingly afraid of using the word “control.” And there’s a good reason.

The leadership research has consistently revealed that command and control power structures are not effective in the 21st century.  They’re usually detrimental.

Yes, usually.

You see, there’s a time when command and control are not just acceptable, but essential. That’s in a time of emergency.

In a crisis, you need to lead with control. You need to apply leader-driven coordination.

Leader-Driven Coordination

Leader-driven coordination is a ‘top-down approach.’… The leader is in charge, making decisions and directing the team’s strategy.”

In times of emergencies, natural disasters, and virus outbreaks, this is the most effective approach. This is not the time to make decisions by committee.

I’m not saying that people’s input doesn’t matter during emergencies. It’s quite the contrary. It matters more.

However, when disaster strikes, you need to have the conviction to make decisions that are going to be unpopular. And if those decisions will protect the health, safety, and well-being of people and minimize damage to property, you need to have the courage to stay the course despite the opposition and resistance you face.

Best Practices for Leading During Emergencies

In times of crisis, things can get chaotic, and you’re under pressure to make rapid-fire decisions without compromising effectiveness.

Here are some best practices that can help:

1. Have a Plan

Develop a written site emergency plan, site evacuation plan, and business continuity plan should your facilities become inoperable.

Cover various scenarios, such as natural disasters, acts of terrorism, accidents, and epidemics. But plans are only as good as people know them and use them. 

Engage your team in routine emergency response exercises and debriefing to help employees to know the expectations, practice execution, give their input, and learn from their mistakes.

The more deliberate and prepared your team is before disaster strikes, the more effective your collective response will be.

2. Act Quickly and Prudently

Acting quickly and with sound judgment can mitigate risk to the health, safety, and well-being of people. It can also minimize the loss of property. 

Failure to act quickly can lead to disastrous consequences, including death. If you have a written plan in place that you and employees know inside and out, you position yourself for quick and sound execution.

3. Acknowledge the Situation

It’s not business as usual. There’s a crisis underway, and people expect to hear from their leaders. Carrying on like nothing’s wrong is like burying our heads in the sand. People want and need direction. They want to know what you’re doing to keep them safe.

4. Communicate a Unified Message

Gather your leadership team and clarify the expected messaging to your staff, your clients and customers, and other stakeholders.  It should be one that provides truth, hope, direction, and courage. 

Create open lines of communication and encourage people to express their concerns, doubts, and fears.

In answering questions, make sure the information you disseminate is accurate. It’s better to say you don’t know and will find out than to give out misinformation. Sharing inaccurate information shatters people’s trust in you.

5. Be Proactive

Act now and do the right thing.

Don’t wait for government officials to issue orders on how to care for your team. Postponing actions just delays the inevitable, and employees will think you only acted because you were forced to do so.

Doing what’s right makes it clear to people that they matter. You’ll reap the rewards in many ways long after the crisis.

6. Take Care of Yourself and Your Family

In times of catastrophe, it’s easy to forget that your family needs you. They need you to stay healthy and safe. They need you to make them your number one priority. Don’t lose sight of that.

7. Regroup and Debrief

When the emergency is over, debrief with your team. What went well? What could have been done better? It’s not about blame. It’s about an opportunity to learn from your collective mistakes so that you’re better prepared the next time.

It’s much more difficult to manage teams in times of calamity. But it’s also an amazing opportunity to strengthen your bond.  If you take control of the situation with people’s best interests in mind, you and your team will emerge much stronger.


Sylvia Melena is the Founder & CEO Melena Consulting Group and the award-winning author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance.



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