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CEOs as leaders in a crisis: essential qualities for success

August 11, 2010 Jonathan Hemus

Tony Hayward - a lack of empathy

In recent postings, we’ve taken a close look at the role of the CEO in crisis management.  In the final posting on this topic for now, we list some of the key qualities required by a chief executive in this context:

1) Leadership

Leadership is a quality one would expect from a CEO at all times, but the stakes are even higher in a crisis: it is the ultimate test for a senior management team.  The outside world will re-evaluate the ability of the senior management team – and the worth of the business – dependent on how it manages the crisis.  Demonstrating leadership and the cool-headed ability to make critical decisions under the most intense pressure are pre-requisites for success.

2) Empathy

A focus on and understanding of the effect of your crisis on impacted stakeholders is essential, and that requires a CEO who can listen as well as talk.  Conversely, a focus on what the crisis means for our business, or worse, what the crisis means for me as CEO is guaranteed to alienate stakeholders and make a bad situation even worse.  It’s one of the key reasons that Tony Hayward endured such a torrid time during his leadership of the BP crisis.

3) Strategic planning

Reacting to a crisis is rarely an effective approach – it means that the crisis manages the business rather than the other way round.  So, an ability to be clear on the objectives for crisis management activity, to see into the future and therefore plan the best course of action are invaluable skills for a CEO in crisis management mode.

4) Integrity

Nothing does more damage in a crisis than double-talk or downright dishonesty.  A CEO who is straight-forward, honest and acknowledges responsibility will retain credibility and therefore the ability to be heard during a crisis.  This is essential if the organisation is to exert influence on how the situation plays out, and emerge unscathed at the other end.

5) Communication

If the CEO is to play the role of lead media spokesperson, they must be a supreme communicator.  The words of the CEO will be tested, analysed and used against them if they slip up.  And when we’re managing reputation in an online age, we’re no longer talking about today’s press comment being tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.  Twitter ensures that today’s gaffe has gone twice round the world by tomorrow and is preserved forever on YouTube and/or Google.

Being a CEO in a crisis tests business heads to the limit.  People who have been successful when running “business as usual” can quickly find their world unravelling when crisis strikes.  Others rise to the challenge, proving that they are not just great managers, but truly great leaders.

Jonathan Hemus

  • Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications
  • Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia

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