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How to lead in a crisis

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Many project leaders today are under the kind of pressure that would crush a normal person. They often feel the pull to greatness but are sucked back into the vortex of the urgencies of the day, multiple responsibilities, and overwhelming and shifting demands.

In high-stakes, high-stress circumstances, we all tend to become exaggerated versions of ourselves. At those times, we go into our ‘default’ mode. Those with a bias for action leap into gear; those with a bias for data can drown themselves in it. They, and we, all need to be mindfully alert to what is truly being asked of us in this moment.

To help leaders create the space necessary to make a considered response to a crisis, rather than be led by their own default reaction, we developed the MOVE framework.

The MOVE framework

Be mindfully alert

Have an open mind and don’t jump to old conclusions. Don’t go with automatic reactions; learn to make space to think. Remember, great leadership has three dimensions. Here are the top three questions to ask yourself:

  1. What do I need to achieve? What are the external demands I must meet – and what do I need to do? Don’t lean on tactics versus strategy, but ask: what really matters?
  2. Who do I want to be?Be clear on and invest in who you are and who you want to be – and step into it. Build emotional regulation, character strengths and purpose – they get you through.
  3. How do I need to relate to my team?To achieve your goals and bring out the best in others, how do you need to connect with them? Don’t decide what is right for you, go with what is right for them.

Be an option generator

Don’t go with your first plan; always have a plan B, C and D. Research is clear: if you have ‘WayPower’ (the ability to have at least four options/plans), you are more likely to reach your goals. These can be tangible goals, i.e. what to do, or intangible ones like ‘How can I be who I want to be under high-stakes circumstances?’ For any challenge, can you have a strategy or plan where you can lean in and actively engage, and another where you can lean back and pull data?

Be willing to validate your vantage point

You should be willing to question yourself and open to input from others. Overconfidence can be a problem here, and hubris is even more dangerous. Don’t get stuck in your own point of view. You should be able to articulate someone else’s perspective as clearly as you can your own. Even when someone’s ideas seem totally off-base, remember that their story makes sense to them. Understand why that is, then see if they will come back over the bridge to where you were standing.

Be able to engage and effect change

Know how to communicate your mission and vision in a way others can absorb and be excited about. Learn how to iterate your message in response to others. Over-communicate; do not assume that, because you are clear on something, others are. They are not. Can your front-line leaders tell you your strategy, mission and purpose? Then be clear about what only you can do, and get out of the way of others.

Practising the skills involved in the MOVE framework will empower you to thrive under stress and challenge. And you can learn to enjoy them. Some leaders just love running into the fire. It’s energising and exciting, but it can be a liability, as some are contemptuous of those who are ‘hiding under their desks’.

Real Time Leadership: Find your winning moves when the stakes arehigh (Harvard Business Review Press) by David Noble and Carol Kauffman is out now. The book is based on five years of research reviewing leadership literature, neuropsychology, business strategy and extensive coaching of major leaders to find out what really helped them.


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