Thursday, March 31, 2011

Leadership in Crises - Lessons from Japan

Japan is experiencing a horrific cocktail of natural catastrophes.  These are made significantly worse by the threat of a nuclear disaster, a threat the Japanese authorities thought they had planned and protected against. Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his leadership team are dealing with a new reality. The situation demands decisive leadership that the Japanese people can trust and follow.

The Japanese are noted for their expertise in earthquake and tsunami preparation, yet were overwhelmed by the events of 11th March 2011. The sheer scale of the natural disaster that befell them was greater and more damaging to their nuclear plant than they had planned and anticipated in their risk management strategies.

Yet the Japanese people are responding with coping strategies rather than panic. The press are full of admiration for their dignity and stoicism.  So whilst their training and mental rehearsal had not prepared them for exactly this disaster they had developed skills which improved their chance of survival and they are expected, as a nation, to come back from this fairly quickly.

Times of crisis force change.  Leaders must let go of existing plans and expectations very fast and create a different sense of purpose and hope that acknowledges the new reality. The speed at which a leader can establish new direction and a sense of control dictates their success in dealing with adversity.

So what are the lessons for us?

We admire people who rise to the challenge of a crisis and lead their followers with vision and purpose through a new landscape. Speed and agility at dropping old plans and setting new ones defines this style of leadership.

We will have to wait to see what the future holds for Japan, but they are a good example of how better outcomes result from improving the pace at which they can get their heads around a new reality. This skill is helping them now as they battle with the aftermath of the disaster.

Should you build your abilities to lead successfully in a crisis? I have done this effectively with several clients using scenario building and strategy testing techniques. It has made them faster at getting through the shock of change, faster at letting go of old expectations, more decisive and better at communicating with people.  Having these skills does not stop a crisis happening but does allow you to take your people with you, enabling them in turn to respond quickly.

Core to that is the ability to give people a renewed sense of purpose, strength and hope; a hallmark of strong leadership and a skill which can be learnt.

Rosie Miller is an international executive coach and author

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