"Defining a True Leader During a Crisis: How to be decisive" by Colonel Jill Morgenthaler

Friday, January 31, 2014 in Articles


Defining a True Leader During a Crisis:  How to be decisive


"Indecision may or may not be my problem."-- Jimmy Buffett


I must admit that I love watching The Cupcake Wars while working out.  It's a guilty pleasure.  In The Cupcake Wars, the pairs of contestants face bizarre themes, strange ingredients and, after making past the first two rounds, team members unknown to them.  The leader must direct her/his team in extremely short time periods in designing and delivering creative and tasty confections.  It is a crisis, and it is a wonderful metaphor of crisis leadership.  Unknowns and time crunch are ingredients to a crisis.  

As I reflected on Hurricane Sandy, I thought of the two different leadership styles showed.  The Mayor of New York tried to go with business as usual, more concerned about powering the marathon than providing power to the people.  The Governor of New Jersey embraced all support to support the people of his state.  I sympathize with "the show must go on" attitude shown at first in NYC but, as leaders in crisis, we take care of the people first.  Period.

What must a leader do to be successful during a crisis?  First, she must create a positive team environment.  Negative teams will bring negative results.  Therefore, set the vision of "We are here to save lives, property and business.  We have the opportunity to save the (choose one or more: world, city, company, school, etc.).  We can save (fill in the blank).  We will save...!"  Ensure your team members embrace the heroic mission.

The next step is the step that truly defines a leader during crisis.  That step is to take decisive action - or as Nike so well put it - just do it!  Many "leaders" freeze.  I've witnessed "leaders" who panic because, "I don't have enough information, or I have too much information."  Both will be true.  Freezing though is not an option.  Decisiveness spells success.  Being decisive doesn't mean being gung-ho.  It means making firm, reasoned decisions that you have confidence in and that you stick with.  It doesn't always mean making an instant decision, but it does mean making a decision in a timely manner.

How do you become a decisive leader?  Here are some steps to becoming a decisive leader.  

•1.      Set Time Limit - Force yourself to make decisions under tight ‘deadlines'.  You don't need a lot of time to make sound decisions, you just think you do.  See Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" on split second decision making.

•2.      Practice, Practice, Practice - Preparing for The Cupcake Wars, the contestants aren't at work saying "Ce sera sera, whatever will be will be."  They are throwing every imaginable scenario at each other.  You need to do the same before a crisis occurs.  Force yourself to make fast decisions.  You will get better over time.  Start with small decisions like, "What if there a shortage of (fill in the blank)?"  Set a timer.  Next time, escalate the incident.  Schedule this often.  Here's how you can get started:

•a.       Define the situation.

•b.      Evaluate the situation.

•c.       Evaluate the options.

•d.      Consider the consequences.

•e.       Do this in < 5 minutes.

•3.      Think Out Loud - grab some fresh paper.  Clearly define the crisis at the top of the page, write down your options and assumptions, followed by any other thoughts or concerns you have.  Just dump all your thoughts to the paper as they enter your mind.  Do not edit, just write it all down.  Don't worry if your thoughts are unclear or do not flow, just keep going.  Now, take the crisis to the team.  Have them do the same on their own.  Then do Step 4.

•4.      Conduct a Tabletop Exercise - Bring everyone together and within a define time, solve the crisis.  A tabletop exercise simulates an emergency situation in an informal, stress-free environment.  The participants ¾usually people on a decision-making level¾gather around a table to discuss general problems and procedures in the context of an emergency scenario.  The focus is on training and familiarization with roles, procedures, or responsibilities.  Gaps and overlaps in response can be identified. 

Increase in decisiveness equates to increase in productivity.  Recent research has found that firm decisions make you more productive.  When you make a decision you can't reverse, you do a better job.  You obviously can't know exactly what choices you'll be faced with in your life.  But you can prepare as best as possible for what to do in a variety of situations.  Just do it!

© Colonel Jill Morgenthaler 2013

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