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Our leaders must get to grips with basic crisis management

Jan 18, 2008 Business Daily, Management

“Companies increasingly accept that crises, in whatever form, are inevitable. While there is a variety of theories and opinions on how best to manage a crisis, some fundamentals are common. First, accurate information is essential. Any attempt to conceal relevant facts and to manipulate the situation ultimately backfires. Second, the company must react as quickly as possible. Third, the response must come from the top. The fourth fundamental is a long-term perspective. Fifth, predicting problems requires a coherent strategy.”

FT Handbook of Management (3rd Edition, 2004)

I sit observing the crisis that threatens to engulf our country, and I note with amazement the ineptitude of many of those tasked with managing the problem. It has been a long-standing conviction of mine that this country has a serious deficit of management knowledge and practice. This deficit has severe consequences, none more so than the cruel and unnecessary loss of life that has so traumatised us in recent days.

So I went back to a basic management reference book, and found the passage which I have excerpted above. Those who have managed crises in corporations have something to teach us. The powers-that-be would do well to take notice of the five fundamentals of crisis management outlined here.

First: you have to unearth, believe in, and rely on the truth – whatever it is. Honesty is the only policy – whatever there is to report. Those who are in charge must make it their business to find out the reality of the situation. Whatever has caused the crisis must be laid on the table. Good action ensues from good knowledge. Any attempt to introduce smokescreens and play with mirrors ultimately causes greater damage.

Second: speed is of the essence. When the country is burning, it does not behove us just to call meetings, hold processions, issue statements or engage in other sideshows. Issue number one is to address the crisis. Causes and consequences can be looked at later. The fire must be put out first.

Third: crises cannot be delegated. A calamity is a time for leadership. No-one but the ultimate leaders of an organisation can address a crisis. This is not a time for spokespersons and henchmen: it is what leaders are paid for. That is why, when Kenya Airways lost an aircraft with all its passengers recently, no-one other than that organisation’s chief executive could be seen to be taking charge. What else is more important to a leader, after all, than alleviating plight?

Fourthly: whilst crises demand short-term corrections, good crisis managers do not lose sight of the long term. That, I fear, is something lost on Kenyan leaders today: that we must not merely correct the current political dispute: we must take far-reaching actions that prevent similar crises in future. This is not just a time to solve a current problem; it is also a time to rise above the immediate context and do something great for future generations of Kenyans.

And lastly: good managers do not just wake up in a crisis and work out what to do on the hoof. They recognise that things do go badly wrong in life; that key individuals do sometimes make calamitous mistakes. That recognition calls for advance planning and rehearsal. It calls for strong systems and stout hearts.

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