The Executive's guide to preparing for emergencies

How to overcome the myth of total control, lead by example, encourage cross-departmental teamwork, and continuously learn what makes a resilient leader.

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Dear reader,

In the latest issue of our newsletter, I deal with a topic that is very close to my heart: leadership in crisis situations.

In my more than 25 years in crisis communication, I've seen how important it's for leaders to cultivate a culture of preparedness, regardless of the size of their organisation.

Whether it's cyberattacks, supply chain disruptions, or natural disasters, the key to resilience lies in our ability to adapt and inspire.

In this article, I share some personal insights and talk about how to overcome the myth of total control, lead by example, encourage cross-departmental teamwork, and continuously learn what makes a resilient leader.

Enjoy, and don’t hesitate to comment or give feedback!

Table of Contents

Leading Through Uncertainty: The Executive's guide to preparing for emergencies

Cultivating a culture of preparedness in times of crisis

Regardless of their size, organisations today are regularly faced with uncertainty and disruption. Leaders face unprecedented challenges when it comes to preparing their organisation and employees for crises that are increasingly unpredictable. From cyber-attacks to supply chain disruptions to natural disasters, emergencies can strike at any moment and disrupt operations.

During these events, an organisation's resilience depends on leadership's ability to foster a culture of preparedness in the face of uncertainty. Leaders who allow flexibility and empower employees at all levels will succeed, while those who cling to rigid control and siloed decision-making will fail.

In this article, I’ll try to cover strategies to help leaders lead with confidence in crises and turn challenges into opportunities for innovation. I’ll cover:

  • Letting go of the myth of total control and embracing adaptive leadership

  • Inspiring the willingness of the entire organisation through your own example

  • Breaking down silos and empowering employees across departments

  • Maintaining resilient leadership through continuous learning

With the right mindset and preparation, an organisation can emerge stronger from any crisis. The time for proactive planning is now.

Turning crises into opportunities for growth

When faced with disasters, leaders often switch into survival mode and focus on damage limitation. However, the most resilient organisations approach crises with a transformative mindset, seeing challenges as opportunities for innovation and growth.

Post-traumatic growth is just as possible at an organisational level as it's for individuals. With the right leadership, organisations can make improvements that may have taken years in just a few months.

I stumbled upon a fascinating study from France that caught my attention. It talks about the psychosocial safety climate (PSC) within organisations, a concept that essentially gauges how much employees feel their mental health is valued by management. What struck me most was the study’s revelation: a strong PSC not only supports workers but actively fosters post-traumatic growth (PTG).1

Take the COVID-19 pandemic: although devastating for many organisations, it led to over a decade's worth of digital transformation and new efficiencies in a matter of months. Companies that have opted for remote or flexible working hours have seen unexpected benefits, such as lower property costs and higher employee satisfaction.

Proactive planning and continuous improvement make organisations successful before, during and after crises. Regular emergency drills and testing of crisis plans give both managers and employees experience they can draw on when real disasters strike. Instead of freezing up, they go into creative problem-solving mode.

Forward-thinking managers don't wait for crises to force improvements. They constantly challenge the status quo, use simulations to put systems through their paces, and create a culture of daily innovation that enables their organisation to respond with lightning speed when disaster strikes.

Adaptive leadership: letting go of the illusion of total control

In the face of crisis, many leaders cling to the illusion of control instead of embracing the uncertainty that comes with rapidly evolving situations.

Trying to micromanage a response only leads to dysfunction and paralysis.

Experts refer to this harmful reaction as the 'myth of total control'. It stems from psychological biases such as overconfidence in one's own solutions and the desire to minimise regret. However, trying to maintain control at all costs limits judgement and flexibility.

The alternative is adaptive leadership, an approach tailored to uncertainty. It requires adapting to dynamic challenges in real time:

  • Admitting the limits of your knowledge and resisting the urge for quick fixes

  • Stay determined as you learn

  • Encouraging others to take the initiative rather than commanding and controlling

This was the approach of leaders during the 2008 financial crisis who resisted panic, switched off the hype, and focused on pragmatic solutions. Those who rushed to take control often made the situation worse.

Adaptive leadership requires the humility to recognise that you can't predict the future. But you can prepare your organisation to deal with unpredictable events through training, scenario planning and open communication.

About Psychological Biases and Overconfidence

Overconfidence is a well-documented psychological tendency in which people believe that their ability to control or predict outcomes is greater than it actually is. This can lead to a false sense of security and potentially risky decisions based on the assumption that all variables can be controlled. The desire to minimise regret is another psychological factor that leads people to try to control every aspect of a situation so that they do not feel responsible for negative outcomes.

Inspire preparedness through personal example

Leaders set the tone when it comes to emergency preparedness. When leaders empower others through their hands-on involvement in crisis planning, the entire organisation will follow their lead.

However, if leaders give the impression that they're disengaged or overly isolated from emergency preparedness, it'll have the opposite effect.

Leading by example means:

  • Direct participation in preparation exercises and drills

  • Communicating transparently about risks and plans

  • Admitting uncertainties and seeking input from all levels

  • Coordinating actions and words to build trust

The benefits of preparedness go beyond logistical readiness. The direct involvement of leaders provides certainty and builds trust at all levels of the organisation. Employees observe how effectively leaders respond to simulations and gain confidence in their ability to manage actual crises.

The commitment of managers to emergency preparedness conveys the message that we look out for each other in this company. It creates a culture of trust, care and collective responsibility – a decisive advantage in difficult times.

Uniting silos: company-wide collaboration and empowerment

In far too many organisations, crisis planning takes place in rigid silos and upward chains of command. However, emergencies require organisation-wide coordination and initiative from the bottom up.

To promote unified preparedness:

  • Form cross-departmental teams to create emergency plans together. Finance, operations, human resources, communications and other functions all need to play a role.

  • Ensure plans are based on two-way communication between levels. Listen to the insights of those on the front line.

  • Provide regular training for employees at all levels, not just managers. Well-informed employees are able to deal with rapidly evolving crises.

  • Run co-operative simulations where different groups work together to test their preparedness and teamwork. Learn from mistakes in a safe environment.

  • Emphasise that everyone is responsible for preparedness, not just senior leaders.

Unity comes from a shared mission, not orders from the top.

Employees should understand how their specific skills and knowledge contribute to the organisation's resilience. Every department is part of the solution.

Resilient leadership: adaptability through continuous learning

In the face of uncertainty, leaders cannot afford to become rigid and entrenched. Resilience comes from continuous learning and the willingness to critically scrutinise one's own decisions and ways of thinking.

This is how you cultivate resilient leadership in emergencies:

  • Engage in growth by soliciting feedback, reflecting after simulations and being open to course corrections.

  • Learn from other leaders and organisations. Study how peers and competitors respond to disruption.

  • Welcome different perspectives. Differences of opinion and cognitive diversity lead to better solutions.

  • Maintain your psychological well-being. Manage stress through self-care.

  • Consistently stick to your values, even when it's hard. Commit to openness, inclusion and compassion.

In this context, check out the CARE survey and study. This study was the first attempt to conduct an exploratory study of crisis leadership qualities in a context-specific environment. It sought to raise awareness of leaders, prepare them for a VUCA or crisis environment, and provide pre-lesson feedback on crisis leadership qualities.2

Continuous learning and adaptation create resilient leaders who are able to excel in the midst of uncertainty. The strategies in this guide will help you turn emergencies from liabilities into catalysts for innovation. Your organisation will emerge stronger from every crisis.

The most important points in a nutshell

  • Say goodbye to the illusion of total control. Take on adaptive leadership and empower others.

  • Promote preparedness through your personal example. Participate directly in preparedness activities.

  • Break down silos. Take an organisation-wide approach to crisis planning.

  • Develop your resilience through continuous learning and reflection.

The time for proactive planning is now. Lead with courage and flexibility to strengthen your entire organisation in times of crisis.

Footnotes & References

1  Sandrin É, Brun JP, Nguyen C, Biron C, Ivers H. Psychological distress and post-traumatic growth in France during the COVID-19 pandemic: A mediation model of psychosocial safety climate as a determinant of work performance. Front Psychol. 2022 Oct 18;13:993458. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.993458. PMID: 36329744; PMCID: PMC9623118.

2  Koh, Cheng Boon. “An Exploratory Study of Crisis Leadership Qualities: the Creative, Adaptive, Resilient, Emotional Intelligence (CARE) Survey.” Eurasian Journal of Business and Management (2023): n. pag.

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Parts of this newsletter were created using AI technology to draft content. In addition, all AI-generated images include a caption stating, 'This image was created using AI'. These changes were made in line with the transparency requirements of the EU AI law for AI-generated content.

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