When being at the top isn't a riotous affair

Posted 22 August 2011 by

It is one thing to be a leader during the ‘good times’, but as recent events have shown, a very different skill set is required to be at the helm during times of crisis.

As the recent troubles started, there were some noticeable absences, namely David Cameron and Boris Johnson, who were both on holiday, and faced strong calls from the public and the opposition to return and take charge of the situation.

Cameron’s actions in returning early and recalling Parliament were an attempt to show that he could and would restore order to a country that was fast losing its patience.

Since then, he has continued on his mission to command trust from the public so they feel the best is being done (although this of course, is subject to opinion). His tough sentencing on rioters and public addresses using phrases such as ‘all out war’ have all been part of his drive to give the appearance of clear and decisive leadership during what has been a very unstable period.

This awareness and understanding of other people’s reactions is one of the key aspects of emotional intelligence, and the ability to manage these reactions in a positive way is a key feature of effective leadership.

However, a true test of leadership is seeing if the remaining team are fully briefed on how to handle a crisis effectively in the leader’s absence. Boris Johnson’s number two was seen successfully handling media interviews as the riots started, but at an organisational level, what basics need to be put in place to ensure that there is visibility and decision-making in the leader’s absence?

Without clarity around these points there is a real risk of diffusion of responsibility – where there is no clear leader and no-one wants to take ownership or accountability for the problem – or there is conflict among the team who all believe they should be the one responsible for making the decision and handling the crisis.

Empowering supporting team members is a good way to make them feel valued, trusted and consulted. It also protects and ensures the long term health of the organisation by training staff to become the next generation of leaders. If they are not trusted to make decisions in the leader’s absence, they may not be made at all – at a potentially heavy cost to the organisation.

What recent events have shown is that good leadership is about more than leading while being physically present – it is about putting robust plans and strategies in place so the organisation can function well at all times, and command the same level of trust that is does while the leader is present.

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