Back to the May-Jun 2020 issue

Leadership Alignment During A Crisis

By Charles A. Weinstein

We are in the middle of a global viral pandemic — undeniably a crisis that affects cities in Minnesota and around the world.

Every crisis brings risks: to people and communities, to institutions, even to our ways of life. Our current situation serves as an urgent reminder of the power of leadership in any crisis: to bring people together, to protect what is important, and to achieve the best possible out­comes for our communities.

Illustration. Crisis leadership them. Aye aye, Cap'n.

In recent decades, Minnesota’s local and state governments have made signif­icant investments in emergency planning and preparedness. These investments pay off when potential crises threaten your city’s capacity to serve the public.

We have better plans and more resources available than in the past. However, the technical and logistical aspects of emergency response are only part of the equation. In moments of cri­sis, city officials must also focus on the human side of leadership.

During a crisis, leaders need to have a clear purpose, as well as clear priorities and values. They need to respond to the realities of the situation, but it is too easy to focus only on circumstances and risk factors, especially those which seem immediate and pressing.

Without a shared understanding of the situation and a commitment to common values, our leadership teams are at risk of merely reacting to circumstances, rather than pursuing strategic outcomes in light of those circumstances.

‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’

A well-known NASA mission does a great job of illustrating the importance of this shared understanding. Fifty years ago, Apollo 13 took off for the moon with three crew members, the support of an extensive mission control organization, and a damaged oxygen tank. When that tank exploded, the flight controllers on the ground heard Commander Jim Lovell’s now-famous words, while a cas­cade of alarms and sensor data indicated multiple, disastrous system failures.

Kevin Fong recounts the situation during his BBC podcast “13 Minutes to the Moon.” The controllers’ first impressions were that a problem had occurred — with the sensors or with communications. A simultaneous, catastrophic failure of multiple sys­tems on the spacecraft just couldn’t be happening!

When controllers realized that the underlying problems were real, they continued to react to the multiple effects of the explosion: the spacecraft was blown off course, power systems had failed, life support was at risk, etc. The mission control team lost precious time chasing this problem or that.

In an interview, Flight Director Kranz cited the turning point in their response: When Capsule Communicator Jack Lousma urged controllers to deter­mine what was still working, and what they needed to accomplish.

The team then shifted from reacting to circumstances to responding to chal­lenges. They quickly worked to achieve alignment in their understanding of the situation, and in their priorities and goals. The successful return of Apollo 13 resulted from the brilliance and tenacity of their collective response, based on that alignment.

Back here on Earth, our crises may be different, but the leadership challenges they pose are similar: City leaders and their teams must work together to bring about the best possible outcomes under difficult circumstances. Alignment is a critical success factor.

Pause for strategic alignment

Popular images of crisis leadership feature rapid action. However, what is important is not how quickly the first actions are taken, but how quickly an effective plan can be executed.

That plan depends on clear informa­tion and shared priorities — strategic alignment. It takes real discipline to pause in a moment of crisis, but without taking the time to achieve strategic align­ment, your actions may be inefficient at best, and harmful at worst.

A well-planned response should begin with city leaders developing a clear, com­mon understanding of:

  • The nature of the situation, and the risks it poses to the city.
  • The priorities and values that will drive the city’s response.
  • The roles and shared commitments of team members.

Aligning leaders’ perspectives and priorities generally requires some effort. Elected officials may see situations very differently from one another and would naturally seek outcomes based on their individual perspectives.

Let diverse perspectives serve as a starting point. By listening carefully to one another and by using the best avail­able information, elected officials can — and must — move toward a unified point of view.Quote. Without taking the time to achieve strategic alignment, your actions may be inefficient at best, and harmful at worst.

Staff leaders likewise have differing roles and responsibilities, areas of exper­tise, and experiences. One experienced city manager observed, “I have a fan­tastic police chief, a fantastic fire chief, a fantastic director of operations, right down the line. But part of what makes them fantastic is their commitments to their own departments. Helping them to think about the whole city, to see the bigger picture, sometimes requires us to pause and reflect together.”

Alignment requires reflection and crit­ical discussions involving both elected officials and city staff.

Lead with values

If your city has embraced a set of shared values, those values must be considered when framing your priori­ties and action plans.

For example, if your city has committed to values such as transparency, respect­fulness, or integrity, those commitments must guide your actions in good times and bad. If a formal statement of city values does not exist, articulating the values that guide your response to a crisis can have the same effect.

Stated values provide a basis for aligning the efforts of your team going forward. As important, values provide the public with a clear rationale for your city’s actions.

Test your team’s strategic alignment by concisely stating your shared under­standing of the situation at hand, the risks that it poses to the city and its stakeholders, and your city’s values and priorities for responding to the crisis. Establish goals and plans based on those values and priorities.

Set your team up for success

Leaders should also quickly establish processes and shared commitments for effective teamwork. Crises often require individuals to work together for the first time, sometimes in unfamiliar roles.

As new teams come together, set them up for success with clear roles, shared expectations, and effective processes for ongoing communication. Some teams will have formal charters; others can sim­ply articulate their teamwork guidelines as a bulleted list.

Shared commitments need not be extensive. Their goal is simply to pave the way for effective teamwork. Ask team members what they need from one another. Clearly state team goals and objectives. Consider straightforward guidelines for decision-making, commu­nication (including meetings), and work­ing through conflicts when they arise.

Finally, do not ignore underlying inter­personal conflicts. “We all have histories, and sometimes those get in our way,” one mayor observed. These problems are rarely insurmountable, but they will not disappear on their own.

A candid, respectful conversation can clear the air and establish new ways of working together. All parties must listen carefully to one another, which may include confirming that each under­stands the other’s perspective.

It is often helpful to affirm that there is common ground: good intentions, and the team’s common goals. From there, even people with a history of conflict can typically establish the basic ground rules necessary for working together.

Keep checking in

As team members become immersed in their specific responsibilities, it is the responsibility of team leaders to check in, assuring that the team remains aligned and informed.

Consider how your situation is changing, and whether those develop­ments require changes in plans. Ask whether team members are getting what they need from one another, and act on what you hear. Assess progress, celebrate successes, identify issues, and adjust accordingly.

It may be counterintuitive to focus on team processes when there is urgent work to be done. Indeed, a crisis is no time to get hung up on details or formal­ities. It is, however, a time to lead both thoughtfully and expediently.

Such leadership begins by establishing strategic alignment, agreeing to some basic teamwork processes, and then getting to work.

Charles A. “Chad” Weinstein is president of Ethical Leaders in Action, a firm that provides leadership development and strategic consulting to cities, public safety agencies, and private-sector organizations.