Leadership in a Crisis
It is easy to be a leader when things are going well. You congratulate the team on a job well done. You pat yourself on the back for having envisioned and executed a strategy that worked. You analyse what went well and where improvements can be made as you begin to plan your next steps.
It is harder to manage let alone lead in a crisis. Frequently those that should be leading demonstrate how poorly suited they are for the role they are in. Instead of taking responsibility for the problems and beginning to find solutions, they pretend there is no problem or find someone else to blame. It is hard to forget Tony Hayward deciding to go sailing in the midst of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Or politicians everywhere lying about sexual peccadilloes when honesty would cause the story to drop so they can get back to the business of governing. The rapid spread of information via social media only exacerbates these errors, when companies and individuals fail to get on top of problems before the story runs away from them. Leaders need to communicate what the situation is, explain how it developed, how they plan to address it, and the continue to communicate until the corner has been turned.
When Team Vestas Wind’s 65 foot yacht grounded on a remote coral reef during the second leg of the Volvo Round the World Race last week, everyone in our community held their breath. Our town is filled with professional sailors and those who love and support them. Fortunately no one was hurt in the grounding. They eventually evacuated to the life raft and then were pulled by a life boat to a deserted island 450km from Mauritus.
Mistakes were made that landed the nine men on a reef in shark-infested waters but once it happened the team pulled together and worked professionally through the night to stay safe. The shore team kept social media up to date on what was happening helping to dampen down speculation. The sponsors though disappointed expressed their relief at everyone’s safety and their continued mission to promote cleaner energy and sustainability. When removing equipment form the boat the day after the crash there was an emphasis on minimizing escaping pollutants and environmental harm.
The most impressive moment of leadership in this saga of courage came from team navigator Wouter Verbraak. In a very personal post, he discusses his feelings of devastation and shock about what happened. He goes through what information he had and takes responsibility for the errors he made that contributed to the grounding. He lays out the steps he needs to take once back in civilization to learn from the data what happened. He stepped up. He took responsibility. He demonstrated real leadership and gives us all an excellent example of how to react in a crisis.