How to be a great leader during an emergency

Stacey Ashley Blog

How to be a great leader during an emergency

I’ve just finished delivering a two-day workshop on resilience and leadership in emergencies. While I know a lot about leadership and leading change and transformation, and some about resilience, and leading with resilience, I needed to do a whole lot of research about emergencies and how leadership looks in emergencies.

In this article, I will share some of the things that I discovered, because during our leadership careers we are all faced with levels of crisis and challenge. Having these ideas in your kit bag will serve you at some point. Whether you are dealing with an isolated crisis, an emergency, a disaster, or a catastrophe, you will be more equipped.

(Resource: the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience has some great information, documents and plans if you feel like you could use a little more help).


What is good leadership composed of in emergency and disaster situations?

There are three themes that consistently came up in my research.


1. Good leaders who are faced or challenged with catastrophe and disaster focus on the important things.

They get very specific about the things that they focus on, which will have an impact and make a difference. And they stay out of the noise. They stay out of the detail because there are other people to deal with that. They focus only on the important, impactful things.


2. The second thing that is really key, and not a surprise, is communication. 

Communication, communication, communication. The good emergency leaders are consistent with their messaging, they’re frequent, they use multi modes so that everybody feels like they are being communicated to throughout the different stages of an emergency situation. From the very beginning of identifying a situation, through the response to the situation, through the recovery of the situation, through to prevention and preparing for what might come next.


3. The third key thing that good leaders do during emergency, disaster, and catastrophe, is that they develop their people. 

They make sure that their people have the knowledge, the skills, and the capability to be able to participate in, and contribute to, the response and the recovery.

They make sure that their people have self-belief and confidence, so they are able to step into that emergency, disaster, catastrophe situation feeling fully equipped.


So how do you lead in these 3 key areas during emergency, disaster and catastrophe?

1. Focus on the important.

Use Covey’s Time Management Matrix to make sure that you’re focused primarily in quadrant two – important, not urgent work. Now in an emergency, catastrophe, disaster situation, everything feels like it’s urgent, but actually, there are things that you need to do. There are sequences of responses; there are plans. And if you execute according to those things, you are not in urgency, you’re following the plan for implementation and doing the important things.

Time Management Matrix - How to be a great leader during an emergency

So the things in quadrant two that you need to focus on are:

  • Planning
  • Project planning
  • Building relationships inside your organisation, and also externally – providers, might be with colleagues, customers, stakeholders
  • Preventative maintenance. You need to make sure that your systems, your tools, your equipment, your processes are all in really good working condition at all times to prevent breakdowns.
  • Building capability – particularly with your people, and also systems, processes, technology, equipment. You need to be consistently building capability that will support you now and in the future.

Review what you are focused on and ensure you are spending most of your energy, effort and time on Q2 activities.


2. Communication 

If you are not sure what to communicate or how to communicate, you can use the four Ps model below.

  • Purpose –  Why are you doing what you are doing?
  • Picture – What is it going to look like when we get there, whether that is next week or next year?
  • Pathway – What is the plan to get to where you are going. What is the overall plan, maybe some milestone points?
  • Part – What is the part that you need each person to play or contribute in this process?
The 4Ps

Using the 4P’s helps to build your consistent communication.

You also need to consider the different modes of delivery that you use. Use different channels of communicating because people pick up information in different ways. So think broadly around emails, and newsletters, and internet, and videos, and audio, and in team meetings, one-on-one, in groups and so on.


3. Building Capability.

There are many ways of approaching this. Everything from classroom training and self-paced learning, to on the job learning. Your coaching and the mentoring approaches are also key. Utilise the coaching moments and mentoring moments as often as possible. Grow and develop the people around you so that they can step up as leaders too. So they can step up in terms of the accountability that they are taking during the emergency, and they also feel confident they have the capability to contribute.


These 3 key themes can help you to identify where you need to focus your own leadership so that you are more prepared as a leader to respond appropriately and effectively to any crisis, emergency, disaster or catastrophe.


I’d love to know your thoughts.

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AND: Whenever you’re ready… here are 4 ways I can help you grow your coaching and leadership: