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How is Your President or Prime Minister Behaving and Acting?

How to assess leadership in times of crisis

· Leadership

The coronavirus pandemic is testing the leadership around the world. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and disaster, judging whether a leader’s performance is effective or not requires doing an informed assessment of his/her crisis management capacities. The results of the assessment will establish their credentials as a good leader or a poor one.

But it’s not about winners or losers or about blaming anyone. Such assessments are shallow. Nor can the verdict cannot be based on a combination of partial assessment and blame game performance. It’s about judging whether your leader is handling the crisis situation well (or not).

Why is it important for the public to assess their nation’s leadership’s performance? Because it can make or break a country. More importantly, it can spell the very survival or demise of the nation. Just look at what’s happening in Hungary. The Prime Minister’s unchecked seizure of power through strongman tactics is a harrowing warning of how a crisis can bring out the authoritarian tendencies of a leader and subsequently drive a nation into reputational dregs.

Four basic dimensions for assessing your national leader’s performance in times of crisis

An informed assessment of a leader’s crisis management capacities requires being able to answer four questions: is the leader making things happen? Getting the job done? Enabling “work arounds”? fulfilling the need for direction and guidance?

(Based on the paper entitled “Leadership in Times of Crisis: A Framework for Assessment” 

by authors Arjen Boin, Sanneke Kuipers and Werner Overdijk, all three from the Netherlands, in the International Review of Public Administration, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 1)

Making things happen by organizing, directing, and implementing actions that minimize the impact of a threat. Effectiveness in this dimension starts with early and shared recognition that a threat has emerged which requires immediate attention. The common denominators are continuous vigilance, or a shared awareness that something can happen at any given moment, and a willingness to act on faint signals coupled with a tolerance for false alarms and voluntary admissions of error.

Getting the job done by forging cooperation between previously unrelated agents. Effectiveness in this dimension is dependent on sense making, or the ability to arrive at a collective understanding of the nature, characteristics, consequences, and potential scope and effects of an evolving threat. It requires orchestrating vertical and horizontal coordination and implementing a well-rehearsed method to process information, share it with the right people and consider their feedback.

Actively monitoring the state of critical (life-sustaining) systems and the connections between them and accessing expertise creates a dynamic picture that everybody understands. It also allows leadership to analyze possible “futures” and potential consequences and formulate specific information needs (which somehow must be met).

Enabling “work arounds” and flexibility when routines and resources do not work. Effectiveness in this dimension entails making critical decisions. Strategic crisis managers are concerned with strategic issues and need to orchestrate a process of adaptation. They are not the “answer-giver-in-chief” and must avoid becoming entangled in operational decision making.

Leaders in times of crisis are called to make critical decisions by taking an objective focus, assessing if and how critical decisions reaffirm and (re)define core institutional or societal values, playing by the rules, and applying principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. To be able to manage a crisis strategically, a leader must have the capacity to learn, both during and after a crisis. This means continuously testing hypotheses against reality. Without the capacity to learn they cannot effectively improvise, discover, and experiment, nor will they be able to correct dysfunctional processes or facilitate freshly discovered solutions. They must therefore allow time for reflection on the effects of chosen courses of action and encourage and tolerate negative feedback.

Fulfilling a symbolic need for direction and guidance. Effectiveness in this dimension requires leaders to provide authentic hope and confidence. This is achieved by communicating a good “story” that helps the public understand the significance of the crisis and provides meaning in relation to core institutional and societal values. It also provides a clear interpretation of the crisis and clear explanations of how leadership intends to lead the nation out of it. a framework for supporting crisis management efforts.

Clear communication and “actionable advice” with citizens and between organizations is incredibly important. Botched communications can have severe repercussions for the safety of people and for how a crisis management operation is perceived. Leadership is expected to actively cooperate with their communications professionals to ensure they have timely and correct information for dissemination to the public. It should explain the crisis, its consequences, and what is being done to minimize the consequences and what should be done, by whom, and why.

Crisis management is serious business

Effective crisis management saves lives, protects infrastructure, and restores trust in public institutions. But the public cannot and should not judge leaders just by what they see, hear or read. Nor can an evaluation of leadership be driven by politicization and media dynamics. If the public is to make an informed assessment of their leadership’s crisis management capacities, an effort must be made to reflect on the many tasks that strategic leaders are called to perform in times of crisis.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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