How to Lead in a Crisis

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?

Everything Connects: An Interview with Faisal Hoque

 

My friend Faisal Hoque is a serial entrepreneur, author, and thought leader.  His life is a modern story of success, failures, and resiliency – leaving Bangladesh at 17 for the United States where he has since founded businesses including SHADOKA and others.  You may know his writing from Fast CompanyHuffington Post, Forbes, or BusinessWeek.

I previously talked with him about The Power of Convergence.  His latest book, written with Drake Baer, Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability. Like all of his writing, it is packed with ideas.

Everything Connects

Faisal, it’s so good to talk with you again.  Let’s start with your definition of “connectivity.”  What is it?  Why is it so important? If it is that important, how do we cultivate it?

 

There is no substitute for inspiration, curiosity, and passion. -Faisal Hoque

 

Being holistic and humanistic is key to a great life and doing great work.

faisal.hoque300dpi2013Connectivity is a sense of journey to the sense of purpose — it is an individual, lonely pursuit and a collective, companionable one at the same time.

Our individual, interpersonal, and organizational working lives all interconnect. By examining these connections, we learn new ways to create, innovate, adapt, and lead.

We need to address our own mental experiences, our social interactions, and the mindset we can take to orient ourselves to this holistic, long-term view.

We need to explore understanding that leads to long-term sustainability, the way to act in a manner that promotes mutual flourishing, and how, crucially, a leader can urge us along this process.

We need to arrange our lives and our organizations in a way that leads to long-term value creation: surveying the subtle and not-so-subtle arts of idea generation, decision-making, and creating continuous value.

The newest problems of the world find solutions in the oldest timeless practices like mindfulness, authenticity, and perseverance—because Everything Connects.

Understanding Unique Motivations

“Somewhere along the way, people become convinced that stasis is safer than movement. Consistency feels comfortable; volatility is frightening.”  As a leader, how do you motivate people out of the comfortable?

I think first, we have to appreciate the interior complexity of the people that we work with. Then, we need to make the links between a person’s individual motivations and what our organizations need. In other words, link the individual–personal goals like career trajectories–to the collective group goals like innovation, revenue growth, and impacting the world.

Leaders need to connect with the emotional intelligence of their people and curate their talent to change, adapt, move forward.  There is no substitute for inspiration, curiosity, and passion. -Faisal Hoque

To do this we need to understand what people need from their work in order to do their best work–and how leaders can help arrange that for them. This distinction is rooted in intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. If people are intrinsically motivated, there is something inside of them that pushes them to their work; if they are extrinsically motivated, something outside of them brings them there.  They embrace the unknown, volatility.  Leaders need to connect with the emotional intelligence of their people and curate their talent to change, adapt, move forward.  There is no substitute for inspiration, curiosity, and passion.

The Benefits of Meditation

You place a lot of value on meditation, calling it the “batting cage for getting familiar with the fastballs and curveballs of our conscious and unconscious habits.”  Off the top of your head, what are the top three benefits of meditating?

Lead With Friendship (Bread)

 

When we first moved to Nashville, someone gave us a “starter” for Amish Friendship Bread.

It looked like a Ziplock bag of liquid glue.  It came with instructions.  It was the “starter” for Friendship Bread.  Follow the instructions and mix in other ingredients, and you will end up with magnificent dessert-like bread.

We loved it.

And my wife loves to bake, too.

When you bake this bread, you end up with more of the “starter” mixture.  It seemed to be a mixture of yeast, flour and sugar.  Before long, my wife was baking this bread as if our kitchen was a commercial bakery.

If you visited our house to change the locks, you walked out with Friendship Bread.  Same for the plumber, the handyman, the electrician and the alarm salesman.  Basically, if you walked within one hundred yards of our house, you were going home with Friendship Bread.

 

 

Still, it kept growing.  Our kitchen counters were literally overflowing with this stuff.

Until, one day, we had enough.  My wife gave all the starters away, and we were finished.

(I’m not sure how much weight I gained during this period, but it was worth it.)

Friendship Bread really was named perfectly.  It was a great gift, a good conversation starter, and who wouldn’t immediately like someone giving them homemade bread?

The experience is a good lesson for leaders:

 

Leaders Give With No Expectation of Anything in Return