“If a man will begin with certainties he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he may end in certainties” (Francis Bacon). Certainty is all about its absurdity, while admittedly doubt is no pleasant orientation of the human mind. Thunder and lightning can be sudden; clear skies can turn grey and calmness can convert to turmoil and turbulence. The element of suddenness of change in even human or market behavior shall always remain a challenge for leadership to handle. Human creativity is at the heart of managing crisis and uncertainty.
Crisis management is the ability to manage the disruptive and unannounced event that has potential to harm the institution. Small measure of uncertainty, albeit is good, for it keeps the leadership and their minds into a continuous state of agility. To create order out of randomness is the art of handling an event of crisis. The ambiguity of future and what it will unfold is a reality that all types of leadership have to contend with.
In times of confusion and its related challenges, there is always a likelihood of obscuring life more largely than in any other, because no one tradition dominates thought and the option to open newer vistas of perspectives.
The manager/leader is expected to act as per the policy directives of the board. To gain allegiance of his team to a cohesive thinking pattern, he ought to be an infectious-vibrant result-oriented personality. Timelessness is one major indicator of true leadership. Leaders foresee looming crises and never shy away from rolling up their sleeves to make a formidable opposition to the event that is likely to strike either the organisation or even the country. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, China’s Zhou En-lai, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, etc. all were known for the long hours they would put in working out solutions for possible scenarios in future, regardless of holidays, inclusive of festival holidays. During these times, they would be preparing maps of reaction to probable eruption of challenges that were likely to impede their march ahead. A manager needs to do just that. In the corporate language, we call it disruption management or contingency plans.
In the handling of any crisis, the role of individual workers is as critical as the man at the helm of affairs. Loyalty to individual verses loyalty to work. What is important? What is the demand of the supervisor? Is loyalty to the individual a significant aspect in the handling of a challenge? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. It is ‘yes’ to the extent that no colleague should become the fifth columnist, it is imperative for team members to remain loyal to the leader for all his business and organisation demands. It is ‘no’, to the limits that personal loyalty must not outstrip loyalty to work. As a CEO, I brushed aside any information brought to me about personal disloyalty, so long as the individual’s loyalty to his work/ assignment remained unchanged. There is no need for currying favour with the supervisor at the cost of organisational goals.
When beset with crisis of any nature, no organisation can hand it over to a single person for resolution, and in doing so can be disastrous; instead it should be tackled by a team; the team here does not mean, ’all and sundry’. The team members need to have some excellent and exceptional skills. A manager must know the value of each member of his team, of what they can do and what they cannot. Each member’s skill-set and specialty must be in the knowledge of the leader. Abraham Lincoln, had many of his opponents, as his cabinet members, because Lincoln knew he could draw on those some special skills they possessed during the crises of measures to end slavery.
To handle, crises of any sort, what is significantly important is to get full and accurate details and facts. I have seen managers losing both their shirt and sense of judgment, in reaction to unconfirmed information.
Apprehensiveness is no trait to be had by any who leads other men. Managers aren’t supposed to perpetrate crisis or even become active catalysts. In real life most seniors are vulnerable to dedicating their ears to rumors, back-biting and hearsay. Suspicion is enemy number one of all initiatives, likely to be taken for resolution of a matter. Crisis management is to sift through inaccurate information to seek the real issue and to discard the element of ‘desire’ of what the crisis should be about in place of what it actually is!
Leadership, corporate or otherwise, must be possessed of the ability to know what the threats are and of means to identify them, timely and as accurately as possible. The adequate knowledge of what could ail the institution will eventually lead to a better state of preparedness. The suddenness of an event shouldn’t overturn the vessel; the management must put in place enough rafts and oars, to tide over the unexpected ’big wave’. Following possession of knowledge, the leader has to set about creating relevant task forces, who are likely to possess ability to create conditions that will firstly either prevent the occurrence of a damaging event or will develop a sound strategy to deal with it, if it eventually happens.
The greatest Greek tragedy perhaps is when either the organisation or the country remains oblivious that it is faced with crises. “Don’t fret”, can never be a solution. Geology shouldn’t be understood only after an earthquake has struck and taken toll. The happening of the crises must be swiftly recognised for all preventive flags to go up. Action to tackle must begin. There is never a time-lag ---- remember the irksome quality of crisis, is its suddenness!
A manager, while deliberating solutions must remain in possession of his narrative. So that, while diverse solutions are being listened from all, there is enough interaction between individuals, to arrive at a harmonious solution. The narrative must be prepared. In the great oil spill along the cost of Alaska, the company responsible for it was in complete disarray in its narrative - it was highly disjointed. This created more fears.
All strategies for managing crises should be well-planned, prepared and documented; in the sudden emergence of a crises you may not be able to fight it tooth and nail, but at least the basic design to handle an unexpected event or the actual happening of the event that will significantly impact the performance of the organization, and will always remain handy.
A plan must take into its purview several possibilities or many contingencies, ranging from changes of performance towards your products or services by the consumer to the changes in your human resource composition. What if the creative production manager meets his end in a car accident? It is just one example, but if this wasn’t thought out by the leader, through the process of ‘succession planning’, he is likely to face a severe crisis of seeking a quick replacement. All critical jobs must have nominated successors. One doesn’t have to wait for funerals to find who fills the shoes!
Who will be in charge in a crisis must be known already, especially if the leader gets incapacitated suddenly. If it is an ignored area, there would be confusion. A an unsuccessful attempt was made on Ronald Reagan’s life by an assassin during early 1980s. While the US president was being rushed to the hospital, his secretary of state, Alexander Haig promptly declared, “I am in charge”. Alexander Haig completely disregarded, intentionally or innocently, that the American constitution, clearly spells out that it is the vice-president who takes over! So, as well in organisations, there must be no ambiguity, of who will be in command, if the leader passes away, gets incapacitated or is indisposed.
During crisis, all staff must speak in unison. This can happen only if there is a sound system of communication within the entity. If necessary, periodic bulletins must be issued form either the CEO’s office or the corporate communication unit, citing latest developments. This will allow all to be on the same page. While internally the flow of information is being handled, the focus must not be lost on keeping the market informed. There should be formal and informal sessions with suppliers, contractors, clients, etc.
Bad news sells. So, an organisation facing any type of crisis will receive an overdose of media attention; be it print, electronic or the more lethal and uncontrollable social media. At a UAE-owned bank, as CEO, I faced a run on the bank, other banks were suffering from similar onslaught, but for an unexplainable reason, this institution being a foreign bank received, more media attention. Enough liquidity that we possessed did not placate the concern, because it was about perception, not reality. I went on a media offensive along with colleagues, where we provided honest answers and swift solutions to complaints. The issue died a natural death in about fifteen days. But it left behind a team that had been challenged to the nth level. It is important to use TV, radio and social media platforms for relaying honest and up-to-date information. By being open, the leadership actually disperses a storm even before it starts gathering. In times of crises, rumor mills run on an overtime basis. It is best to take them on; only if you are certain, that you are in the area of honesty. False information does not qualify inclusion.
Post crisis, measure the damage done, quantify the loss and go into finding more details. “Life is made up of uncertainty. Each time we breathe out we don’t know if we’ll breathe in again, each time we run steeping forward, we don’t know we’ll encounter, but we cannot idle where we are. Despite our efforts to picture the unfolding events as managed, orderly or fixed; we don’t know what will happen” (Sharon Salzberg). The unexpectedness and suddenness of crises remains and will remain a formidable threat.
The writer is a senior banker and a freelance columnist