Elevating leaders during a crisis: The value of ‘deliberate calm’ and ‘bounded optimism’

Just as an organization’s senior executives must be prepared to temporarily shift some responsibilities from their command-and-control hierarchy to a network of teams, they must also empower others to direct many aspects of the organization’s crisis response. This involves granting them the authority to make and implement decisions without having to gain approval. One important function of senior executives is to quickly establish an architecture for decision making, so that accountability is clear and decisions are made by appropriate people at different levels.

Senior leaders must also make sure that they empower the right people to make crisis-response decisions across the network of teams. Since decision makers will probably make some mistakes, they must be able to learn quickly and make corrections without overreacting or paralyzing the organization. At the start of a crisis, senior leaders will have to appoint decision makers to direct the crisis response. But as the crisis evolves, new crisis-response leaders will naturally emerge in a network-of-teams construct, and those crisis-response leaders won’t always be senior executives.

In routine emergencies, experience is perhaps the most valuable quality that leaders bring. But in novel, landscape-scale crises, character is of the utmost importance. Crisis-response leaders must be able to unify teams behind a single purpose and frame questions for them to investigate. The best will display several qualities. One is “deliberate calm,” the ability to detach from a fraught situation and think clearly about how one will navigate it. 6 Deliberate calm is most often found in well-grounded individuals who possess humility but not helplessness.

Another important quality is “bounded optimism,” or confidence combined with realism. Early in a crisis, if leaders display excessive confidence in spite of obviously difficult conditions, they can lose credibility. It is more effective for leaders to project confidence that the organization will find a way through its tough situation but also show that they recognize the crisis’s uncertainty and have begun to grapple with it by collecting more information. When the crisis has passed, then optimism will be more beneficial (and can be far less bounded).

Source: McKinsey