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  • 22 November 2016

What makes an effective leader?

We can’t get away from the issue of leadership at the moment, with a new prime minister that we need to put our faith in in such uncertain times, and now the controversial election of Donald Trump as new president of the US. But while it doesn’t quite equate to the responsibility of running the country, leadership is also a hugely important topic in the workplace.

This article seeks to explore just some of the key factors that underpin leadership at work, with a special focus on when a catastrophe comes tumbling into our world, causing an unscheduled and often brutal audit of corporate competence.  That's when we really do need leaders, but it's seldom that easy.

Many questions come to mind when we consider the subject of leadership: is one style better than another? Are there common characteristics? What style seems suited to which environment? Can I be an effective leader?

We sometimes confuse leadership with management, command or authority, but they are not always the same. To help determine what leadership is, it's worth contrasting these other activities:

  • Management might be described as the organisation and coordination of an activity, or series of activities, in order to achieve defined objectives.  It often consists of the interlocking functions of organising, planning and, controlling. In a business context, it is often included as a factor of production along with machines and materials.
  • Command is often a managerial function that might be defined as the direction, coordination and effective use of resources. Equally, it is the ability to use or control something, as well as, more commonly, an instruction causing a computer to perform an intended function.
  • Authority is often seen as the possession of powers based on a formal role. For example, the possibility of those with authority promoting or demoting or otherwise disadvantaging subordinate staff may well secure their compliance, but that is not the same as leadership.
  • Leadership is often something more informal - the ability to make sense of, and inspire others in situations that are out of the ordinary. Effective leaders may have formal authority, but they rely in large part on informal authority. This flows from their personal qualities and actions. They may be trusted, respected for their expertise, or followed because of their ability to persuade, or a combination of both.  Sometimes a ‘situational leader’ can be especially effective by selecting the best behaviour and approach to match the task needs, and capabilities of those needing leadership in order to complete those tasks.    

Crisis leaders should have authority as part of a subtle but vital exchange with followers: if they fail to deliver the goods, to meet expectations, it will ultimately be the followers (e.g. those in a crisis team, those who have to enact the decisions of the team, as well as many other stakeholders) who will decide on the true effectiveness of the stated leader. In some cases presumed leaders might be reduced to making little more than symbolic gestures of that role, whilst the media, workers and victims of a crisis realise that this person does not actually exert leadership capability and turn instead, to someone else.In which case, in terms of who actually persuades followers, another, de facto leader might emerge, sometimes from an unexpected source (e.g. someone who has previously experienced a similar situation, an influential shareholder, company press spokesperson or victim representative). In other cases, true leadership remains elusive, often compounding the crisis that has to be resolved.

When considering all of these issues, effective leadership in a crisis scenario is dependent on a mix of interconnecting factors. For example, leadership style and the degree to which the situation gives the leader control and influence.  This depends on the relationship between the leader and followers (if leaders are liked and respected they are more likely to have the support of others) and the structure of the task (if the task is clearly spelled out it is more likely that a leader will be able to exert influence).

Effective leaders understand they will not always have all of the information they might like. There may be too little, or too much information, some or all of which may be ambiguous, contradictory, unreliable, unverifiable or wrong. But they also know that making an imperfect decision is usually better than making no decision, or delaying until all the desired information (most often elusive) is available before deciding, in which case it's often too late. 

Also, good crisis leaders exist at the front end of reality. They take ownership of the problem, recognise events and their significances and do not shy away from the consequences of what they see and the actions needed to resolve the situation.

An effective crisis leader frequently relies on followers for feedback and contributions, not unlike the conductor of an orchestra.  Without these he or she will not have the information and resources to do the job. Leaders and followers are, therefore, highly interdependent.

In this sense, top level leadership in a crisis is not that dissimilar to being responsible for a large orchestra. One key test of leadership is that the orchestra should know where it's going and play together. Preparation is therefore essential, bearing in mind that people normally prefer to be led rather than driven. 

Like an orchestra, the conductor or leader needs 'presence'. He or she has to be seen, not least because an effective leader stands on the boundary between the organisation and all that overlaps with it.  Above all, leadership in a crisis scenario is not simply about strategic planning. That's the easy part. The difficult part is making things happen.

It may not be possible to impose order on apparent chaos very quickly, but a leader should always strive to demonstrate calmness, authority and determination. This will help to defuse tensions, provide a focus for activity, inspire confidence in the crisis team and reassure stakeholders that something effective is being done. 

The distinctive features of leadership in a crisis scenario therefore include:

  • Identifying key issues and priorities
  • Generating a sense of direction
  • Inspiring others by stimulating motivation
  • Building and sustaining a crisis team, capable of working if the leader is absent 
  • Setting an example
  • Being accepted, as opposed to just being appointed
  • The integrity of the leader to generate trust
  • Enthusiasm for the task
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Communication skills
  • Ability to vary leadership style to circumstance

Effectively leading a high-performance crisis team should produce the following:

  • Isolation, as far as is possible, of the crisis
  • Clear, realistic and attainable objectives
  • Delivering prompt, honest and positive messages to all media layers
  • A shared sense of purpose
  • Best use of resources
  • Reviewing progress
  • Accepting the new reality quickly
  • Prioritisation and success measurement of key tasks
  • Isolation of the crisis to minimise escalation
  • Regularly communicating/updating, internally and as well externally

Warren Bennis, a US pioneer in the field of leadership studies, once said that in his opinion "leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality".  Of all the many quotes by so many people, I think this simple sentence is one of the best.  So, can you be an effective leader?

Peter Power BA FBCI FIRM JP is the head of Visor Consultants and Chairman of the World Conference on Disaster Management.