How to Lead in a Crisis

ICE-SAR classification

Gisli Olafsson knows how to lead in a crisis. He led the first international rescue team to arrive in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.  He has led teams in other world disasters from the floods in Ghana to the Horn of Africa Famine to the Typhoons of Bopha. With over 20 years of experience in disaster management, Gisli is one of the world’s leading experts on the use of technology in a disaster response. He is the Emergency Response Director for NetHope, enabling humanitarian organizations to serve the developing world.

Who better to talk about the subject of leading in a crisis?

The Crisis LeaderLeading through Difficult Times

Gisli, your new book The Crisis Leader is all about leading through difficult times.  Your experiences of managing crises are very different than my own.  Would you share a few of the more challenging circumstances you’ve faced?

The most challenging circumstance that I encountered was leading the Icelandic Urban Search and Rescue team to Haiti following the devastating earthquake in January 2010.  We were the first international team to arrive in the country, and the scenes of our first day will forever be branded in our minds: tens of thousands of bodies lying on the streets being collected into dump-trucks and taken away.  Sadly, we would continue to experience scenes of death, despair, and chaos our entire mission there.

 

It is in times of crisis that good leaders emerge. -Rudy Giuliani

 

As a team leader during the next two weeks, it became all about me ensuring that the team could perform at their maximum level, even though they had just witnessed the most terrifying experience of their life.  Keeping morale high, watching out for signs of stress, and encouraging them to give their best in order to save lives was all I did, 20-22 hours per day.

These and other disasters I have responded to taught me lessons about leadership, lessons that I discovered were not just unique to the world of disaster response but were in fact applicable to any organization or company dealing with a crisis.

Leadership vs. Crisis Leadership

You have seen some tragic events.  I cannot imagine how you felt. What’s your definition of leadership?  Is crisis leadership different?  Does it require a different approach?

Haiti Earthquake 2010 Haiti Earthquake 2010

Leadership is about getting people to do the things you want them to do, without necessarily having the authority to tell them to do these things. Leadership is about sharing a vision of a future state and influencing others to help you reach that state. Leadership is about focusing on that future vision instead of the past, while leveraging the lessons of the past to ensure you do not make the same mistakes while trying to reach that future vision.

Crisis leadership takes all of this to a higher level. There is so much more at stake. In my world it may make the difference between life and death. For other crisis leaders, it may mean the difference between the company surviving or going bankrupt.

Rudy Giuliani phrased it well when he said, “It is in times of crisis that good leaders emerge.” It is at these times that you see who the true leaders are, which ones can take the pressure and which ones can really get people rallied around a common vision forward, instead of giving in to the despair that is all around.

 

Leadership is about focusing on the future vision instead of the past. -Gisli Olafsson

 

Is there one characteristic that is a must-have for a crisis leader?

7 Steps of Crisis Leadership

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Photo by krystenn on flickr.

It happens.

A crisis.  A major problem.  A disaster.

If it hasn’t happened to you, my guess is that it will.  Most all of us will find a time in our careers when we are right in the middle of it.

Several times in my career, I’ve found myself in difficult situations.  For me, I find it may be stressful, but also energizing at the same time.  At least a crisis is a reason to take quick, decisive action because a lot is on the line.

What do you do when you find yourself in a really tough situation?

The Five C’s of a Successful Turnaround

Turnaround Photo

Image courtesy of istockphoto/spxChrome

A few weeks ago, I spoke at a Distressed Investing Conference in Florida.  It’s really a turnaround conference designed for professionals focused on fixing troubled companies.  Since I’ve had plenty of crisis management experience in turning around troubled businesses, I was asked to share war stories and strategies.  I also enjoyed the opportunity to network and learn from the 200 industry leaders in attendance.

Here are the five major points I shared:

1. Control.  I’m not a big proponent of top-down, autocratic management systems.  I much prefer an entrepreneurial environment with lots of input and a leader with a persuasive style.  In a crisis, though, it’s often necessary to ramp up the control level and increase the speed of decision making.  I tend to move very fast anyway, and I like to seek opinions and then make a decision and move on.  If you are in trouble, you don’t have the luxury of numerous meetings and extensive analysis.