Leadership in Crisis
On 17 March, the National Leadership Centre (NLC) hosted an online webinar with Sir Gordon Messenger on ‘Leadership in Crisis’. Sir Gordon has been in the Royal Marines for over 38 years and was previously Vice Chief of the Defence Staff. In November 2020 he became the Head of Operations for the UK Government’s Covid 19 Community Testing Programme (CTP), testing large percentages of the population to identify asymptomatic cases in the community and minimise transmission.
The event brought together leaders from across the public sector to reflect on the different characteristics of a crisis. It was particularly fascinating to hear how Sir Gordon’s insights from his time in conflict settings in Afghanistan and Iraq, applied to his time leading the Covid Community Testing Programme.
Three core themes emerged as particularly important lessons to learn:
Defining a crisis
Sir Gordon explained that a crisis is defined when something unexpected and unplanned happens; when the factors you would normally use to make decisions are not there; and when the implications of making those decisions are significant. The Covid pandemic had all these hallmarks.
“Metaphorically everyone stops talking in the room and looks at you. That’s the time you earn your keep as a leader.”
Crises are almost always fast-moving and can put you in a position where you are no longer in charge of your own timeline or unable to draw on a full assessment of the information to make decisions. As a leader in those situations, you have to accept that crisis impacts on different people in different ways. Some may need more direction than usual and some may feel disengaged. You need to bring as much stability to structures and processes as early as you can.
Leading in a crisis
Sir Gordon suggested concrete steps to achieve stability in a crisis.
It starts with building the right team of people to whom you can devolve responsibility and this is crucial in allowing you to stop fire-fighting and move on to focusing on the bigger picture. At the Community Testing Programme, Sir Gordon had to bring together a team who had never worked together and had to rapidly build up the right processes, structures and relationships from scratch. Sir Gordon described how important it is to have a trusted team and to bring in those with expertise and experience in crisis management. As a leader, you also need to recognise those who may just be in the wrong place in the system, and move them to a place where they are better suited and able to thrive. Establishing good quality management information alongside this team is key, as each person at different levels will be seeing the problem in their own way.
Choosing the right time to make a decision is important. Don’t delay or act too quickly and try to have a clear reference point against which you make decisions. For example, this might be focused on the priorities around saving lives, building peace in a community or maintaining a strategic relationship. It can seem difficult in a fast-paced environment, but it is also important to carve out time to transfer knowledge and bring the team up to speed so that delegating becomes easier.
“Everyone is looking for an anchor, solidity in the storm. They want you to be that anchor.”
The importance of staying calm and measured cannot be overestimated. If you are not calm, you cannot provide the anchor that is needed. Being calm will also allow you to assimilate all the facts before reacting immediately to a situation — things are never as good or as bad as they first seem. Remember that you need to take time to drill down on key issues and be prepared to take more risk and not always get it right on the less important areas. Bringing values of tolerance and courtesy, and enabling people to take leave to rest are so important amid the pressures that everyone is facing.
Learning from Covid response
Sir Gordon shared his four core lessons from his experience of leading through Covid response:
1. There is a balance to be struck between creating new structures and adapting existing ones. It is important to build on crisis management systems already in place, for example those at a local level, and to develop relationships across the delivery system.
2. In crisis you need to be able to reach out, bring people in and trust them.
3. The skill of producing perfect policy needs to be balanced against the need to be more operational and delivery-focused. Coordinating that delivery alongside changing expectations is key.
4. People respond really well if they feel that what they’re doing is making a difference.
The NLC would like to thank General Sir Gordon Messenger for giving us his time to share his reflections on leading in crisis.