Leadership and decision-making in times of crisis

With the topic of Leadership at the forefront of much of our work at AGL, we were granted access to a senior army officer and leadership expert to help us clarify our thinking on the matter. Having led a variety of teams facing some of the most challenging situations globally in a military career spanning 20+ years, his insight on decision-making in extremity got us thinking. 

Decision-making is a core function of effective leadership. Leaders often have to face dilemmas during crises which usually occur when least expected and least welcome. Perhaps now, more than ever, we are witnessing a crisis of confidence in our leaders on an international scale, and the need to get it right is paramount. By understanding the dynamics of a crisis, and how they affect decision-makers, leaders and their organisations can become more resilient and better prepared for success when it most matters.

As our contact pointed out, ‘what determines a crisis is contextual’. A life and death decision for most people is just another day at work for an A&E doctor, so it is vital to take into account the various elements, both visible and invisible, that bring a high-pressure situation to light.

Perhaps now, more than ever, we are witnessing a crisis of confidence in our leaders on an international scale, and the need to get it right is paramount

He identifies four main factors that create a ‘crisis’ situation in any circumstance, be that as the leader of a small business, or a commanding officer in Afghanistan: urgency, high stakes, ambiguity and complexity.

Urgency is what gets people really stressed. Having a fixed, often brief, window of opportunity to act requires leaders to be decisive whilst understanding and analysing the situation without wasting a second. This factor alone can be enough to affect an organisations performance if the leader is unable to handle this pressure.

The high-stakes nature of a crisis situation make it more likely that emotional bias will come into play, as the magnitude of the decision often means the risk taken will be ‘make or break’ or ‘live or die’. Logical thought and rationale can be side-lined in preference for a ‘gut-feeling’, and cognitive performance has been known to completely fragment as the pressure, internal and external, mounts.

We presume that our leaders are in possession of all the facts when making these high-stakes decisions, but often situational ambiguity will make these environments information-poor, hampering the ability to judge risk and foresee the potential outcomes.

Conversely, a situation can be so multi-faceted and complex that a leader becomes overloaded with information, and under time constraints is simply unable to ingest enough of the facts to accurately frame a problem let alone make a decision.

It is vital to acknowledge that conditions in high-pressure situations make decisions almost always sub-optimal, with a leader often having to choose the least-worst option, with no guarantee of a complete solution.

Add to all of this the pressure of public scrutiny that so many leaders have to contest with, and the concern for preserving one’s hard-earned reputation, and we have ourselves a distinctly unappetizing enigma of moving parts, on occaision otherwise known as “fuzzy gambles” (after Stern 2003). The ‘loneliness of command’, when a leader accepts responsibility, is never more evident than in the moments preceding the pinnacle of a crisis.

So what can we do to build and maintain stable performance under pressure?

Firstly, we should accept the responsibility that comes with leadership and prepare for the likelihood of leading and deciding in sub-optimal conditions as the norm. We should then better anticipate and plan for these moments of crisis, putting in place effective plans for the multitude of outcomes that arise when Plan A is not achievable.

We should seek to understand in what conditions our leaders operate most effectively, and respond accordingly. Are they intuitive or rational decision-makers? Do they require support, discussion and feedback, or do they need seclusion and a way to shut out all the white noise?

Finally, we need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. No one is born with the ability to cope in a crisis. We must familiarise ourselves with acting on the uncertain and rehearse regularly so that in the event of an emergency the channels of communication feel disciplined and well oiled.

Decision-making is only as good as the way it is communicated. When things are going wrong we should always bear in mind that at the heart of it all decision-making is about people and all the micro-decisions and interactions that occur within those relationships. If we can better support our leaders, if they can more effectively and authentically communicate their decision-making processes with us, and if we can prime individuals with the tools they need to make the best of a bad situation, we can hope for a future more densely populated with, empowered, authentic and ultimately more effective leaders.