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In this week’s bulletin, Charlie discusses the role of a leader in a crisis team and looks at some of the key things to consider when choosing a leader.

I went to an interesting and informative webinar this week titled ‘How to Lead Effectively in a Crisis‘, with Jonathan Hemus asking the questions and Sean Cunningham, Group Crisis Manager at Vestas, answering. One of the questions was who should lead the crisis team, and Sean’s answer wasn’t that it should be the most senior person on the team, and it wasn’t who had expertise in the type of incident that occurred. He said it should be someone who does not have expertise in the type of incident and their role should be a facilitator and coordinator rather than taking a more command-and-control approach to the leadership role.

I was slightly taken aback by this view as I had personally been very clear on who I thought should be in command of the team – ‘the person who gets sacked if it all goes wrong’ – working on the principle that if you get paid the top salary, you have the top responsibility and so should lead the team. Sean’s view got me thinking further about who actually should take the role of the team leader, and so this week I thought I would expand and share some ideas on this.

When I talk about the team leader, I am talking about multiple levels of teams, so the leader of the gold, silver, bronze, or the operational, tactical, or strategic team, or whatever name you want to name your team. All teams need to have someone who is designated to be in charge of them and designated as the leader.

When I look at this issue, I fall back on my army experience, and the army is very clear on hierarchy and who is in charge. If it is a platoon, it is the platoon commander, and if it is a company, the company commander. There is no ambiguity, and there is a chain of command if that person is not available or incapacitated. Most civilian organisations do have a hierarchy, but the actual command is more fluid and can be determined by character, culture, and practice, as well as what it says on the organisation’s organigram.

A few thoughts on the designation of a leader:

  1. Sometimes the obvious team leader, such as the CEO, won’t take on the role and they designate it to one of their subordinates instead, as they feel they would like time to ponder issues and have thinking time, rather than be involved in the full-on management of the incident.
  2. CEOs can often not be as available during incidents, , as they have to field calls from key stakeholders who would want to speak only to the CEO.
  3. I have seen an organisation that uses a professional incident manager to lead the team. They are a member of the organisation’s resilience team and are trained up for this role. They have been empowered to make decisions on behalf of the organisation. In my experience, this is quite rare.
  4. In a similar way, the role of the business continuity professional is often to advise the team leader on process and decisions but not actually to take over responsibility for leading the team. I think this works well when you get the seniority of the leader and the gravitas to lead the team, but also the knowledge of how the organisation responds from the business continuity manager.
  5. I like Sean’s idea of not having the team leader as a subject matter expert. This allows them to be a facilitator, taking into account the views and opinions of subject matter experts without imposing their own expertise. Their expertise may be close to the incident but may not be relevant, and secondly, their knowledge may be out of date. I remember one of the Anglian Water directors getting very involved in the operational response to a water incident and trying to direct the team managing the incident on the ground in minute detail, but finding out that his knowledge was out of date, and the network had changed years ago.
  6. Choosing a leader could be carried out based on their skills and leadership ability. Some people are just good at crises. I think this should be practised and exercised, as under real pressure, people revert to type, and their actual ability to manage may be different under pressure than when they manage on a day-to-day basis.
  7. It is important that the team leader gives those managing the incident below them the responsibility to get on and manage the incident without undue interference and guidance. The team above should have plenty of tasks to do themselves without micromanaging the team below. So, the leader must be trusting to allow their subordinates and the operational team to get on with the task.
  8. On reflection, I think I should get away from this idea that the person gets sacked if it goes wrong. I think this gives a negative view of the role of team leader, and they are likely to be defensive and cautious in their decision-making and leadership, rather than being bold, decisive, and daring. The timid leader is unlikely to try and seize the opportunities which might be available in response to an incident.

The answer to ‘Who should lead your crisis or incident team’ is really, it depends. However, I think we, as business continuity people, need to give those who we work for appropriate options rather than having a hard and fast ‘rule’ of who it should be.

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