Public Leadership Through Crisis 6: Know your role, Empower others to play their roles and Stay in your lane.

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

So far this series has focused on ideas to equip the individual to lead through crisis. This is because real people struggle during crises and need to ready and steady themselves to take leadership. Before you start trying to lead others, you need to have some basics in place to prepare yourself, and that’s what we have focused  on.

We will soon move beyond talking about you, and offer ideas on mobilizing  your organization(s) to tackle the crisis. But remember that self-leadership is crucial when you are leading through crises, and come back to some of these ‘basics to remember’ if needed.

For this post, however, I want you to still think about yourself, and another ‘basic to remember’ as you lead in this crisis: Know your role. Empower others to play their roles. Stay in your lane. 

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You’re not alone in this crisis. But how do you think of everyone’s roles?

The message is simple: your personal leadership is crucial right now, but insufficient in the face of crisis (and at most times, in fact). You must work with others who also provide leadership. Put differently, borrowing  from the NPLI; ‘you  are it’ but ‘others are it, too’. So, you must identify what your role is, find others to play other roles, and stay in your lane to let them play those roles. I know this may be difficult for many, but it is imperative.

As you reflect on this idea, remember how I suggest we think about leading through crisis (from the first blog post), drawing on David Foster Wallace’s view that “leaders help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Now, consider this: “Where are you and who are the people you are ‘helping overcome’?” You could be in a family (where you are helping your kids through crisis), or the front desk at a hospital (where you are helping a few staff members), or an entire hospital (where you are helping hundreds of staff members and thousands of patients), or a community, or a nation.

Now, consider that there are other people in every place you find yourself leading. Some are in positions of authority above you, some are under your authority, others are operating at your side, inside or outside your personal sphere of influence.

I find that the kind of leadership required to help people through crisis requires contributions from many of these people, playing different roles and allowing each other to play their role as effectively as possible. 

I first saw this when conducting research on leadership in 12 cases where major achievements followed crisis-like periods (mostly related to conflict). I was interested in who had led these achievements, and interviewed people who had been involved to better understand this. I expected to hear the names of one or two prominent individuals in each case, but was surprised when I heard an average of over 7 names in each case. It was the first time that I realized leadership is not about one person on her or his own.

Following up with the interviewees, I asked why each person identified specific individuals as a ‘leader’. This led to the identification of a specific set of roles I now see played in all important change processes (like the kind required when you lead through crises). These roles are played by individuals working together in what I call multi-agent leadership engagements. The roles include:

    • Authorizers,
    • Motivators,
    • Conveners,
    • Connectors,
    • Problem identifiers,
    • Idea generators,
    • Encouragers (or empowerers),
    • Resource people, and
    • Implementers.

Interestingly, my research suggests that leaders who really help their people ‘do better, harder things’ seldom play more than three roles. Even the people we sometimes call ‘champions’ (or, perhaps, supervisors or Tzars give responsibility for overseeing crises responses) hold to this rule-of-thumb. When most effective, I see these champions or supervisors authorizing, convening, and motivating to facilitate effective decision making and communication, but requiring and empowering others to play the other roles.

If you are interested to learn more, see research on the topic here and here and watch this video.

I think this kind of leadership matters so much when facing crises and other stressful challenges because multiple agents leading together helps to spread decision-making risk, fosters creativity, and starves off burn out (among  other things). And this kind of leadership gives more agents the chance to exercise their leadership muscle and be part of helping people through crisis.

This is why you should consider, very seriously, identifying what roles you plan to play and letting others play their roles. Which brings me to key questions you might want to reflect on:

  1. Do you agree that there are many roles to play in leading through crisis?
    • How would you define your role? (use your own words)
    • If you are forced to choose just three roles you will play in this list, which would they be? (i) Authorizers, (ii) Motivator, (iii) Convener, (iv) Connector, (v) Problem identifier, (vi) Idea generator, (vii) Encourager (or empowerer), (viii) Resource provider, and (ix) Implementer
  2. Do you agree that many people in your context are available to play their role with you?
    • Think of who you would look to play roles with you?
    • Write names down next to the following roles, so you have a good idea of who you have playing what roles in your multi-agent engagement: (i) Authorizers, (ii) Motivator, (iii) Convener, (iv) Connector, (v) Problem identifier, (vi) Idea generator, (vii) Encourager (or empowerer), (viii) Resource provider, and (ix) Implementer.

For multi-agent leadership to work, you and other leaders need to identify your role and stick to it, letting others play their roles too. Leonard Marcus from NPLI calls this ‘staying in your lane’ (in describing ‘swarm leadership’ which is a great description of how multi-agent leadership works). He notes that a key to successful leadership in the face of crises is to “Stay in your lanes, do your job, and help others to succeed in theirs. [always ask ] How can I make you a success?”

‘Staying in your lane’ proves to be difficult in many crisis situations, however, especially for those leaders playing champion or supervisory roles. In this video (make sure English subtitles are on and ‘listen’ to his comments in referring to disaster response experiences) Norwegian psychiatrist Lars Weisaeth finds that  champions (or supervisors) often interfere with others and take on  too many roles. He comments that [for leaders] “Forcing yourself to restrain from doing things yourself [or playing all the roles] requires a lot of self-control.” This is especially the case when the supervisor feels like she or he is not doing enough, and he or she gives in to “The urge  to act  [and take over all the roles].” Unfortunately this can lead to you ‘spreading  yourself too thin’, ‘overpromising’ and disempowering others to ‘do better, harder things’ themselves.

Be careful not to fall into this trap, by staying in your lane. To help you reflect on this, consider the following  questions:

  1. What will cause you to want to ‘leave your lane’ and take others’ roles from them?
  2. What disciplines can you adopt to ensure you have enough self-control to stay in your lane?

For some inspiration, watch this video by Gregory Ciottone, on crisis leadership in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States. It is nearly twenty minutes long, but very much worth watching—especially if you are currently feeling overwhelmed by crisis. At moment 2:02, Ciottone says he was asking “what will my role be here”. One of our key questions in  this blog. He then refers to being  ‘a little piece in a big machine’ (around 8:04) which you can only say if you realize that others are working alongside you (playing other roles).

If you are interested in reading more, click here for part 7of this blog series. Also visit the landing page for this series on our website

 

Public Leadership Through Crisis 5: Good communication ideas you might consider

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

In my last blog I noted that communication is a key leadership act in crisis. (and you must commit to communicate —to help people deal with fear and accept change).

It is good to remember that every crisis poses different communication challenges, so I don’t think there are one-best-way solutions to doing communication right in the face of crisis. But I do think there are some good communication ideas you might consider whenever you are engaging with others during this difficult time.

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How do you communicate to your people when the wind and waves are high?

Let me offer some ideas that I personally think can be useful. Before doing so, however, let me encourage you to open yourself to learning about communications in crisis. There are a number of articles out there offering advice on communicating in crisis, like this one and this one and this one. I advise you to read as many articles as possible and weigh up all the different points of view  out there, to see where the ‘good ideas’ are (those that seem to be offered by multiple authors, with examples, and that you think you could act on in your context). Additionally, and particularly regarding the COVID-19 crisis, you may want to  reference the excellent resource on communicating during health crises (by the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

My first good communication idea is ‘Be calm’. Your main job in crisis is to lead your people through a stressful time; they will only follow if they think you are credible and know what you are doing. The best way to foster this credibility is  to stay calm and collected. I have encountered much advice on how to be calm in communication, and here are a few—briefly: (i) be as prepared as you can and keep things simple—make sure you have a basic narrative that you will stick to (it is your anchor); (ii) be calm in your demeanor, sure of what you are communicating (adopt a simple standing or seated pose, for instance, and do not try to be  charismatic here!); (iii) do not be threatened by any questions or challenges, but  rather listen and take notes (you will  get many  chances  to communicate and can  easily  get  back to people if you don’t have answers now); (iv) tell the truth; anything else will generate stress (now or later, for you and the people you are communicating with). Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 5: Good communication ideas you might consider

Public Leadership Through Crisis 4: You as a leader must be smarter than your brain

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

You will notice that the first three blogs have all been about the leader—not the crisis. This is intentional, as we think you—the leader—need to be ready in  yourself for the challenge  you are  facing. You can never be fully ready, but the basics I am suggesting  can help you. I will be offering four more posts dedicated just to you preparing  yourself—rapidly—for this challenge, and then we will move to working with the  crisis  itself, and your team, and the broader set of actors you will need to engage for help.

As indicated in the third blog post, I do not believe there is a one best way approach  to do this work. I hope these ideas will help you think actively about the approach you will take.

Let’s remember the ideas shared so far (with  links to the relevant blogs):

  1. Clarify your ‘public’ motivation (it’s what will keep you strong and  focused),
  2. Be honest —but not hampered by—about self-doubt,
  3. Commit to communicate—to help people deal with fear and accept change,
  4. Identify your key people and how you will motivate and mobilize them, and
  5. Fight all tendencies to freeze, by being brave (take responsibility, nothing less), being calm (responding quickly not rashly), and being adaptive (remember there is no perfect response, so try and be  willing  to  change) 

We wonder if you agree with these ideas? Or if you have tried answering the  questions asked in relation to the ideas: they are designed to help you actively prepare yourself.

Notice the important, vital message embedded in idea 5 (above): One day in the  future, when this crisis is averted or resolved or managed into some new and acceptable equilibrium, you will not be tested on whether you did things perfectly. You  will, instead, be tested on whether you ultimately managed  to help your people get through it, albeit imperfectly. You will almost certainly have made mistakes and be able to learn lessons to do things better, but you will also know that your success in leading would not have been possible without the mistakes. So please, adopt a brave but calm try-learn-adapt mentality to your leadership. Your goal is to steer your ship through this storm in a good manner. Don’t let the  perfect be the  enemy  of that good.

Today’s blog post topic is also centered on you, but also gives you some ideas to ponder about why it is so hard to mobilize your  people, and how you might communicate with them to get them mobilized in the face of the crisis. The topic is ‘you as a leader must be smarter than your brain’ (especially in  this crisis).

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Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 4: You as a leader must be smarter than your brain

Public Leadership Through Crisis 3: Be brave, calm, adaptive; there is no perfect crisis response

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

In my last blog post I emphasized the importance of leaders in crisis situations being (i) motivated for the public good, (ii) honest about—but not hampered by—self-doubt, (iii) committed to communicating more than ever (to help people deal with fear and accept change), and (iv) aware of who their key people are and how to motivate and mobilize those key  people.

We wonder if you agree with these ideas?

These may seem like simple ideas to start with, but many crisis situations are exacerbated by leaders who do not adhere to these lessons. Instead, we see many leaders making mistakes like thinking too much about themselves during crises (their careers, political futures, etc.), giving into their doubts, communicating poorly,  or centering the work too much on themselves (and failing to mobilize the key people around them or to help these people embrace change). Often they fall into these traps because they think the only thing that matters is getting to a solution, fast; actually, leading your people matters just as much (if  not more).

You need to be aware that these traps are there. And beware of them. They can cause you and your people to fall over the edge.

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Building on this, Katharina Balazs (cited in the last post) reflects on a concern we have for anyone expected to lead in these crisis situations. She talks about how leaders (and others) ‘freeze’ in the face of crises when they become defensive about the past and give in to doubts about moving effectively into the future. She, and her co-author, write that the “fear of a narcissistic injury, of having to acknowledge that the present state of affairs is not good enough, can contribute to a frozen stance [where] we seem to prefer the familiar “bad” to the promising unknown.” (Transforming the mind-set of the organization (Kets De Vries and Balazs, 1999,646)).
Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 3: Be brave, calm, adaptive; there is no perfect crisis response

Public Leadership Through Crisis 2: Know your motivation, put communications and key people first

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

When the storm, wind and rain, of crisis is coming (or has come), how do you start to lead?

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Building on my earlier blog post, we are sharing two posts today with some rapid ideas on how leading organizations, towns, cities, regions and countries might start thinking about leadership in the face of crisis (like the Covid-19 crisis). We know that the approach everyone takes will be different, and should be  fitted to context. And it is hard to offer ‘perfect’ answers. But we are trying to be responsive and helpful by pulling together some materials we think can empower leaders in times of crisis.

We are asking other academics, practitioners, and more to comment on these blogs, contact us with their own ideas, links to materials, etc. This is not a take-it-or-leave-it space, but one where we want to foster real learning and sharing by the large community of people who we know care about public service. The more lessons are shared, the more help will be offered.

My first blog raised questions, based on Nancy  Koehn’s work, about:

  1. The role of motivation in public leaders in times of crisis (and the importance of knowing you are on a ‘worthy mission’),
  2. The importance of ensuring public interest drives leaders’ decisions (being ‘thou’ centered instead of ‘I’ centered),
  3. The fact that you as a leader will have doubts (about your capabilities, and more) but the key is not giving into these doubts, and
  4. The idea that leadership is about helping others to overcome their limits and ‘do better, harder’ things in the face of a crisis.   

I want to pick up on the last idea that, as someone in public leadership, you are here to help your people get through the crisis you are all in.  Your job is not just to manage the technical dimensions  of the crisis, or the  logistics, or the timeline of activities. Your job is to help your people work through their limits to rise up and make the small and big, temporary and permanent, hard and not-so-hard changes required to get through the high winds and rough waves you are encountering. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 2: Know your motivation, put communications and key people first

Public Leadership Through Crisis 1: Can public leaders navigate high winds and big waves in little boats?

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

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Governments are most important in times of public crisis. This is where individuals—no matter how talented or self-reliant—look to their governments for help; to empower or use or deploy the powers and potentialities of the collective on behalf of that collective.

But many people tasked with leading public organizations in times of crises, struggle to know if and how to rise to the occasion. They know that people are looking to them for a lot, but wonder if they and their organizations are ready and/or capable to handle the many tasks.

This is a particular challenge in governments that have low capability or are in the process of trying to build capability. Crises involve threats that can easily overwhelm state capability, especially where such  capability is limited to start with.

Leaders in such situations can easily feel like captains on small boats facing  high winds and big waves. I have recently been in touch  with a few such leaders, asking something like the following: “How do I help my people navigate and survive through high winds and big waves in our little boat? What kind of leadership is required to do this navigation?”

I plan  to use this series of blog posts to offer ideas for leaders asking  this question; on the subject of public leadership in and through crisis.

I write at a time when the Covid-19 crisis is peaking in some countries but only just hitting many countries where I typically work; especially in the developing world. I am not a public health specialist, and cannot therefore offer ideas on WHAT your  policy response should be in the face of this crisis. But I do a lot of work on HOW you might organize your response—communicating, coordination, structuring the process, and managing yourself. That’s what I will focus on. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 1: Can public leaders navigate high winds and big waves in little boats?