Leadership in a Crisis
16th April by Sir Nicholas Young
Sir Nick Young, ex CEO of the British Red Cross and Macmillan Cancer Support is no stranger to leading in a crisis. Having started his career as a commercial lawyer, he is now a charity trustee and consultant. He was knighted for services to cancer care in 2000. Here, Nick shares his experience of leading through crisis periods in the voluntary sector.
I loved leading in a crisis. Looking back over more than thirty years in the voluntary sector, the most satisfaction I ever had (if not always the most enjoyment!) was being at the helm of an organisation when it was facing a serious external or internal challenge.
This may sound odd, even unlikely. Every crisis has its scary moments; every organisation has its weaknesses that may put a successful outcome at risk; every leader has times of intense and lonely self-doubt. But it’s these moments, and the way you as a leader respond to them, that put you on your mettle, and give you the opportunity to show what you can do. To inspire. To give confidence. To show courage. To lead.
For a start, the crisis gives you permission, a mandate, to act. For all that I loved team work and the consultative, inclusive approach of the voluntary sector, I always found it exhilarating to be faced with a problem that required, that demanded, action and quick decision-making; that forced us all to abandon our own pet projects and preferred ways of thinking, and to work together to face a common challenge. Particularly in an organisation like the Red Cross, this was what we were all about.
Then there’s the passion. A crisis can unlock a strength of feeling about work that helps people function on a different plane altogether. Suddenly, humdrum routine either becomes unimportant, as you drop everything and turn to more urgent tasks, or you see those routine tasks fulfilling a vital role in helping to deal with the crisis. I loved seeing people step up to work at a pitch or a pace that they might not have thought possible, or with a passion that they might never before have had the opportunity to show.
Finally, it’s all about the people, and the chance that a crisis can bring to be close to them. To talk with them, to hear their hopes and fears, and to share your own. To paint mental pictures for them of the crisis you all face, its impact, and what you hope to do to overcome it. To inspire them to work harder or better or more flexibly or more cooperatively. To instil courage in them, and to draw courage yourself from their approach. To ask for and to receive their permission for you to lead, and to make the often difficult decisions or choices that you know you may have to make.
All leaders have different styles, different strengths and weaknesses, different passions and approaches. But all leaders share a common responsibility to guide their organisations through bad times as well as good; and a common opportunity to do and to be, the best they can when crisis strikes.
Years ago, reading a bedtime story to the kids, I came upon a magical tale by Allan Ahlberg called 'Captain Jim', and so here’s a quote to finish:
He said: the world’s a puzzle,
A game of keys and locks;
A mirror in a mirror,
A box within a box
And we must do the best we can
And stand up to the shocks
He told us: that’s the moral,
In a world without a plan,
In a world without a meaning,
Designed to puzzle man;
You must do your intervening
In the best way that you can.