Keep calm and carry on: leadership in crisis


By Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO

We are all on a journey.

Of course, we all like to think we’re unflappable in a crisis, with “excellent under pressure” a common fallback phrase during most job application processes. But how often do leaders deal with genuine crises? A certain element depends upon how one defines crisis. After all, one person’s crisis is another person’s midday stroll. In local government, crisis scenarios via emergency planning are common, and more widely since 2008 councils having been anecdotally described as “in crisis”. Going by the headlines, you’d think the last decade would have been more than enough to equip a local authority CEO and leadership team for any form of crisis that came their way.

In many cases, you’d be right. As long as I’ve been in the public sector, I’ve been consistently in awe of the ability of its leaders to direct large and complex organisations through difficult times. But today we are facing a new crisis. The challenges posed by the pandemic that continues to work its way around the world are entirely unprecedented. The leadership skills required to manage these challenges are therefore more important than ever. So what lessons can we learn from the crises of yesteryear to support the COVID-19 response? For me personally leading CIPFA as a registered charity through the present time, this is not my first crisis, but it’s certainly the first I’ve shared with every leader on the planet.

Here are my top three tips…..

1. Too many cooks spoil the broth

Accountability sits at the heart of public sector values, and is of vital importance in times of great pressure. But when answers are proving hard to come by, and business-as-usual job roles have shifted, maintaining clear lines of accountability can be challenging. When crisis hits, create a tight team with clearly assigned roles and responsibilities. Touch base little and often to ensure information flows freely up and down chains of command.

2. Communicate regularly and honestly

Communication sounds like a cliché, but will be core to your ability to manage a crisis. Create a clear timetable for communications with all stakeholders, both internally and externally. They need to know when and how they can expect to hear from you. Most important of all, be clear and open about what you do not know. Crisis situations demand clarity and honesty in your communications above all else. 

3. Be decisive and fail fast

Throughout the government response to this crisis we have seen unwillingness to take fast and decisive action, with social care being the best example. Despite the fact that care homes, with their older and vulnerable residents, were a clear high-risk environment for COVID-19, an action plan for social care took almost a month to deliver. The fatalities in care homes are a tragic testament to the consequences of delaying action. Times of crisis demand that decisions be taken based on solid evidence, but that they be taken fast. If that decision proves incorrect, or new evidence suggests a more appropriate direction to take, that’s ok. Be prepared to be transparent about the fact you’re learning on the go. This is an unprecedented situation – stakeholders will appreciate honesty and action over smoke and mirrors and delay.

These are of course only a starter for ten. If you’re interested in further guidance around best practice in crisis management, check out the CIPFA COVID-19 resource hub where we have materials from Sir Michael Barber freely available. Sir Michael will also be joining us for a webinar on Thursday 28 May alongside Surrey County Council CEO Joanna Killian to delve into crisis management in greater detail.

COVID-19 is the greatest test the public sector has faced in a generation. I find strength in the knowledge that local government has some of the finest leaders stepping up to the plate to meet it.

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