There are some serious lessons that will no doubt be gleaned from the New Year’s Eve fire at The Address Downtown in Dubai. However, amid the shock we all felt at the sight of the hotel ablaze, the example set by the measured response of Dubai Civil Defence was noted around the world. Through their calm response to the crisis, the area was rapidly secured so that fireworks could go ahead as planned, while a matter of hours later, the fire was put out completely. That took real leadership.
Crisis management is a critical – if often under-explored – responsibility of every leader. Whether the crisis is a fire or natural disaster, a diving share price or failing business, it is in such moments that people look to their leaders to answer the all-important question – “what do we do now?”.
How a leader answers this question will effectively set the course of whether an organisation survives the crisis intact. This is the case because whatever the organisational situation, the natural response for many employees will be to start losing their heads and panic – hardly the best atmosphere for producing rational ideas and solutions.
A leader must respond to this sense of chaos as calmly as they can, conscious that their own public reaction to the crisis is likely to be the window through which everybody else views the issue. They need to take stock of the situation at hand, avoiding the temptation to act hastily to too-quickly “solve” the problem immediately before them. Haste in these situations rarely produces a lasting fix.
Crucial to this is the exact role that leaders assume in their response. On the one hand, an atmosphere of impending doom might compel a chief executive to take a very hands-on role, tackling issues directly and involving themselves in every action to ensure it is carried out as they require. At the other end of the spectrum, a leader might take advantage of their position to focus on strategic oversight – allowing a broader perspective across the whole of the crisis, while delegating individual tasks to the people best able to get them done.
Leaders must also remember that a crisis rarely stays in the same form for long. It will often be a problem that creates new complications that, in turn, generate new issues. This means that a leader cannot come up with a single problem-busting plan and proceed regardless. Instead, they need to avoid allowing the pressure of the crisis to force them to abandon all adaptability, and must instead be prepared to revise plans on the go to keep up with shifting concerns. This should involve listening to different opinions, considering radical ideas and moving confidently and decisively when a decision has been made.
The need for a leader to communicate effectively is a drum regularly beaten in this column, and in the midst of a crisis this is certainly the case. At these moments, a leader needs to carefully gauge the expectations of others, and be sure to neither under nor overestimate the scale of the problem. People might expect a rapid resolution, but communicating one when the full scale of the issue is unknown will only create an undercooked solution that later compounds the sense of unease.
It is far better to be realistic about the full scale of what an organisation faces – no matter how grave – while at the same time presenting a clear and considered path to overcome it. A leader may well be unable to control the cause of a crisis, but they can certainly appear to control the response.
It can be hard to see at the time, but a crisis can present an excellent moment for reflection. Just as the Dubai fire has prompted renewed attention on the fire safety standards of some UAE buildings, the conditions that contributed to an organisational crisis can also be properly investigated to try to avoid the problem repeating. Obviously this will seem a distant concern when survival of a business is at stake, but a wise organisation should aim to learn from the crisis they have overcome.
Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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