Carry On don’t lose your head

As I write I’m listening to news reports in the UK critical of the government’s latest anti-COVID-19 measures for not being restrictive enough and for “not following the science.”

Until now the loudest critisisms had been that they had acted in too draconian a way and had slavishly “followed the science.”

Anybody who has shared my experience of being a crisis manager will sympathise with the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” fate we have all known at one time or another and that those government crisis managers and their political masters must be experiencing today.

When I’ve been in “the war room” managing a crisis I’ve always tried to shut out those “we know better” voices.

That risks ignoring what might be good advice, but the greater risk is that you become dazzled like the rabbit in the headlights by bright but allusory and dangerous shiny objects which might seem momentarily attractive as “get out of jail cards” but almost certainly needed greater scrutiny than you have time to give.

My apologies for metaphor and allegory overload!

A good crisis manager is one who can in Kipling’s words “keep their head when all about them are losing theirs.” Figuratively, not literally hopefully.

Keeping your nerve is probably to key attribute required.

In a crisis situation things invariably change fast and furiously. Best laid plans fall apart and wargamed playbook scenarios are too often quickly become irrelevant. And if you have time to read the Crisis Manual then you aren’t really in a crisis.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a great believer in preparation and planning. And manuals!

The best professional advice I ever received was from my friend Harvey Thomas, famed former “advance man” to Billy Graham and Margaret Thatcher. I asked him for his top three tipos and they were “prepare, prepare and prepare.”

The LEADS Test after which this site is named was itself a methodology I developed not just to help corporate leaders to make tough policy decisions but also to be used as a wargaming techniques to help plan, prepare and test those scenarios to develop a best practice playbook.

But these techniques and methodologies were designed for crisis training – to help business leaders and their communicators to prepare for the worst days that hopefully would never happen and to guide them in conducting business and communications in ways to help prevent them from happening at all. The training should help you to understand how to make the decisions, not to dictate what those decisions will be.

I’ve not managed a crisis where the scenarios ever neatly fitted our pre-planned playbooks. But every single one of them fitted the lesson from preparing them – to understand how to take responsibility.

In many organisations, particularly big ones, taking responsibility is something people try to avoid. Afterall there’s always a consultant or adviser to blame, and in the biggest organisations there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people to help take the blame when it goes wrong, but strangely they rarely share the credit when it goes well.

The key learning for participants in those preparation and wargaming exercises, the only one that really matters, is to learn how to behave in a crisis. Not so much what to do, as specifics vary enormously, but to understand how, when and why things should be done.

The best crisis management preparation and training is to learn how to be in the right frame of mind, to ignore siren voices, and to keep your nerve.

When decisions are made, they are your responsibility. Whether things go well or not, it’s important to remember the mantra famously espoused by one of my former bosses Margaret Thatcher : “advisers advise and ministers decide.”

No matter how many people are in the room, literally and figuratively, giving advice, and no matter how many “we know better” heads are outside it shouting in, the ability to take responsibility for your decision is ultimately why you are paid to be there.

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