Those in charge of volunteers too often need to master crisis leadership skills.
It happens to most of us at one point or another. Some emergency happens and everyone’s looking at you.
Despite the fact that you’re just as blind-sided, just as panicked and just as confused as everyone else, you need to take charge. You’re the leader. It’s up to you to get yourself and all the volunteers through this.
Here are four tips to help you hone your crisis leadership skills.
Tip 1: Keep a calm demeanor
There are few things more calculated to instill confidence in a panicked individual or group than someone who is calm and in control.
And if you’re not? At least look like you are.
Most people know that the mind can fool the body. Make you see things that aren’t there, etc. Fewer people know that the opposite is also true. Your body can fool your mind.
If you act calm – speak in a quiet, firm voice, keep your shoulders down and relaxed, breathe steadily – your mind will start becoming calm, even if you don’t originally feel that way. Force your body into the rhythms that it follows when it is calm, and your mind will follow.
And if you are calm, those around you will lose the edge of their panic. My dad used to say that more people die from panic than from everything else combined. If you can stay calm, and in doing so keep others calm, you will have better results no matter how bad the crisis.
Tip 2: Do something
Even if you feel at a loss, start doing something right away. Implement your emergency plan. Take a head count. Anything.
This does a couple of things. First, deliberate action helps you get a grip on your own fear, and it gives you time to start thinking clearly about what really needs to be done.
Controlled physical movement – emphasis on “controlled” – will also give you control of your mind and your emotions.
Tip 3: Give people tasks
Same reason. When people have a job to do during a crisis, no matter what it is, they will feel more in control of themselves, and thus of the situation.
The stereotypical thing used to be to tell an expectant father to “go boil some water” while the mother was in labour. I highly doubt the water was really of much use, but it gave the father something to do so he didn’t feel completely helpless. (Also kept him out of the midwife’s way!)
Do the same thing with volunteers. Give them something to do, even if it isn’t vital. Have someone direct traffic. Have another person phone the Board President. And so on.
Keeping them busy will give them the same advantages that it gave you. It gives them a feeling of empowerment, and time to start thinking clearly again.
Tip 4: Over communicate
Many leaders are uncomfortable speaking until they have all the facts. Unfortunately, during a crisis facts can be few and far between. If you wait until you are sure of something before you tell people, you might not speak at all!
That’s not to say you should claim more knowledge than you have. But there are things you can talk about:
- Let the volunteers know what you do know, even if it’s obvious;
- List the things that you’re not sure of and what you’re doing to find out;
- Squash any rumours that you know are either not true or that are likely to cause panic whether true or not; and
- What you would like them to do next.
For example: “The shelter has caught on fire. Everyone is out safely. It seems to have started either in the kitchen or in the storeroom right behind it. The fire chief will be confirming that with me later. There is no reason to think that it was deliberately set. Peter, I need you to direct traffic. Mary, please…..”, etc.
Continue updating people at regular intervals – more often than you might think necessary. Don’t assume a piece of information is too unimportant to mention. Just hearing you give updates will make them feel that someone has a handle on things.
If nothing else, acknowledge that it is a frightening situation but that you’re proud of how well they’re handling it, and you trust that everything will work out.
Crisis leadership is hard.
Bad things happen. People around us may be panicking. There might even be physical danger. And we need to lead people through this.
To do so effectively, follow the four tips above. Stay calm – or at least act like you’re calm, manage your own fears and those of others through action, and communicate often.
You will get through this. And the better your skills in crisis leadership, the better a leader you will be overall.