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?
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.
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?
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?
How often have you heard the phrase ‘lead by example’? Probably one too many times. We’re all told that we ought to lead by example without any understanding of what leaders do, much less how they think. First and foremost we must recognize that great leaders from all walks of life embrace entrepreneurship not only in action but entrepreneurship in its truest form. Which means they entrepreneu in all aspects of their lives. Entrepreneu is a verb and it constitutes many elements, but we’ll focus on one key element of what it means to entrepreneu here: Leveraging Opportunity.
Great leaders are great opportunists. They are patient and wistful about the right opportunity. This doesn’t mean they idly wait for the perfect time to make a move. It means that they make the best of their current scenario. An effective leader does that in two ways.
When we think of creating opportunity, we realize that we must make decisions that help us create the right opportunity. Yet with decision making, we often think simply in the terms of a decision that leads to one good outcome and another that perhaps leads to one bad outcome. The key word to be understood here is ‘one.’ To create real opportunities, we must think of decisions that could be made that lead us to arrive at multiple positive outcomes.
Great leaders are in a constant hunt for opportunities where they can apply the law of dual reasoning, when their one action stems from two distinct and profitable reasons. In such a scenario, through the outcome of their decision they will have positioned themselves in a way to have a choice of two positive options instead of one good and one bad outcome. This enables them to create opportunity with choices.
More often than not we’re put in situations that we are not content with. Life doesn’t always pan out as we plan it, which is why we must adopt the mentality of Leveraging Circumstance. The mentality of Leveraging Circumstance comes from the understanding of what the great author Napoleon Hill once said: “Every adversity, every heartache carries within itself a seed of equivalent or greater benefit.” When we truly understand what the author is trying to say, we can begin to leverage our circumstances. In simple terms, we’re speaking of that silver lining in things that don’t go our way.
Like you, I receive my share of email. I have multiple email accounts. It is especially difficult to manage as I travel the globe, working across time zones.
Over the years, I have heard my share of advice about email. I call them “email productivity myths” because they are widely shared in leadership and productivity classes. The problem is that some are not true. Others work for some but not all.
Here are a few:
1. Email is one of the biggest time wasters.
Why: This is one I hear all the time. It seems a given that everyone sees it as a nuisance, as a time waster, as taking too much time.
Why it’s a myth: More often, email is saving time. It allows quick communication with people all over the world. What takes a few minutes to write and to read would have required scheduling a conference call, preparing, and having an unneeded long conversation. How to use email properly is an important skill, but don’t fall into the false belief that all email is a waste of your day.
2. Never reply all because you are filling up everyone’s email box unnecessarily.
Why: Carelessly hitting reply all adds an email to everyone’s inbox.
Why to do it: There are times when replying all is important. You are sending a message where everyone needs to stay in the conversation. The important reminder is to think about where it is going.
3. Don’t respond.
Why: Say you receive an email sent to a few people, and you have an opinion and decide not to respond.
Why you may need to respond: Depending on the culture of your organization, silence may be read to equal agreement. If you have a point of view, you may need to share it either via email or in-person.
4. Use the blind cc: feature to copy people.
Why: You are using the blind carbon copy to let someone know you are handling a situation, but you don’t want the receiver to know.
Why you should rarely, if ever use it: It feels slimy. It’s like you are hearing a one-sided conversation, and don’t get to hear the response. If you receive a blind cc, you have to keep track of what you are supposed to know, and what you aren’t. Worst of all, we have all seen someone who was blind carbon copied respond, embarrassing the sender.