Leading a team through a crisis can be likened to four principles borrowed from the Coast Guard and its disaster response mantra: adaptability, flexibility, clear objectives, and on-scene initiative.

The Coast Guard calls the principles the bedrock in an organizational culture that empowers trained personnel to make decisions and adapt to emergency conditions. As one commander put it, the boss isn’t going to be around during every second of an emergency to approve every decision. Effective leaders make sure their team is well trained and therefore well-equipped to make decisions as the changing environment of a crisis demands.

For example, few crises unfold as a textbook or training manual would dictate. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Coast Guard pilots flew as many rescue missions in a week as others would fly in an entire career.

Such extraordinary conditions meant Coast Guard pilots had to adapt their training techniques during those first nine days after the storm. Already the pilots had improvised from maritime and at-sea rescues to working in an urban, flooded area. Now they had to contend with people physically and emotionally overwhelmed by a natural disaster.

No manual prepares a pilot for that. It was only by having pilots who knew they had the ability and approval to improvise that the missions were successful, according to Captain Bruce Jones, who was assigned to New Orleans when Katrina hit.

Organizations can build their leadership structure and crisis-management ability in the following five ways:

No. 1: Forge relationships. Jones and his commanders knew their pilots and greeted them after every flight. Only by having those connections in place before Katrina were the commanders and the pilots able to trust each other that the job would be done – and done correctly.

No 2: Develop flexibility. Along with respect and relationships comes an understanding that an organization can and must be flexible. Training should emphasize building judgment and making decisions as shifting conditions dictate.

No. 3: Encourage courage. Good leaders build confidence in their team members. By being confident and competent, those team members can shine during a crisis because they know the management structure expects them to act upon their convictions and assessment of what action is urgently needed.

No. 4: Support risk-taking. An organization can be crippled in a crisis if its management has built in a culture that penalizes every risk; every mistake that is made in a good-faith attempt to help. Confident team members know that if they make a decision based on sound reasons, they will not be penalized or made a scapegoat for a mistake that may come from it.

No. 5: Enable empowerment. Educate local leaders to the idea that they must make decisions based on the situations they face. A crisis means that upper managers cannot hold on to ultimate authority. If team members aren’t used to having that authority and confidence on a regular basis, then they will not magically develop it during an emergency. Build a culture of adaptability, flexibility, clear objectives and on-scene initiative throughout the year. Then it will be second nature during a crisis.

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