Lessons From the Front Line on Crisis-Response

By on March 23rd, 2020 in Business Consulting

In this time of great uncertainty – what leadership lessons can we take from those who are trained from the get-go to lead us out of situations we could not predict?

For the military, leading crisis is part of their daily lives. Terms that have become common language in corporate circles (operational rehearsals, drills, and war-gaming) are well-rehearsed techniques deployed to manage life and death situations. Organizations can learn a lot from military practices leveraging leadership, alignment and ways of working.

Murphy Bright, former US Marine and Consultant with McKinney Rogers in New York, and Will Casselton, a London based Partner, discuss fundamental lessons that apply today more than ever.

Murphy, in our work with leadership teams, we talk about operating faster than the pace of the problem, at the pace of the fastest, what personal examples of agility and flexibility stand out from your service in the Marines?

Within 48 hours of the 2012 Benghazi attack, I was on a Navy Ship with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit,  a self-mobile, self-sustaining force of Marines and sailors, capable of responding to a range of crises at a moment’s notice. Two days later my Platoon of 42 Marines was offloaded to an undisclosed location in the Horn of Africa with a Mission to respond to any crisis to U.S. interests throughout Africa and the Middle East within 12 hours. The situation was evolving hourly and we were not sure where the next attack might come from.

As it became clear that US citizens somewhere in western Africa were in imminent danger of an attack by hostile forces, we received word to be wheels up within two hours to reinforce the US interest in that location. Immediately I was pushed additional resources from other government agencies and branches of the military. While I was not the senior ranking officer, I was the officer in charge of the mission and responsible for the overall success or failure. With limited time and resources, we had to plan to be agile and think dynamically. We had to come up with a sound plan quickly. We accomplished this by constantly checking in with one another and ensuring we were allowing our subordinates time to understand how the plan would be executed.

Back in 2012, as a relatively junior leader, how did that situation shape how you make decisions?

The initial reaction at the time of a crisis is to look straight towards leadership for the ‘what now’ and ‘what next’. That situation taught me the pressure of how it feels when people look to you to control potential chaos. It has taught me to trust my intuition whilst remembering to project honesty, caution and to stay positive. Leaders need to be decisive yet prepared to adapt to a changing situation.

In the Marine Corps we use the acronym B.A.M.C.I.S.

  • Begin planning
  • Arrange for reconnaissance
  • Make reconnaissance
  • Complete the plan
  • Issue the order
  • Supervise

It is used to help us make plans in times of crisis that will accomplish mission objectives. In the corporate world, the same process can be applied in times of crisis. The most important step in this process is the final step –

Supervise. A strong leader will be able to take a step back and because the plan is so clear and concise to team members that no micromanaging is needed.

The military have specific guidelines for creating a plan at the times of a crisis, aligned to the same principles of Mission-based leadership. How relevant is that right now as Organizations plan to survive and overcome the challenges we are all facing?

Mission Leadership is more relevant at times of transformation and disruption. Having clarity of the desired outcome, actions to achieve it and a feedback loop to measure progress is critical. The initial plan provides a foundational starting point, not a script. Plans should not seek to specify future actions but identify options and possibilities. The best plan is only as good as the team that implements it.

Last September you joined me in the Bahamas to support a client as Hurricane Dorian hit Abaco and Freeport. Our client’s response reinforced their Vision to be the leader in connected lifestyles and experiences. At the time we co-developed their strategy in 2018, we did not intend that to include natural disasters or health pandemics, but the clarity of the mission to connect people and save lives created a strong sense of belonging both in the management team and equally from customers loyal to the brand.

Reinforcing that sense of belonging is critical. Leaders need to highlight the importance of the team or group of teams’ identities.  Keeping teams motivated, true to your purpose is key. Organizations operate best when members think of themselves as belonging to a group with cooperation and commitment to the Mission.

We are being forced to change our ways of working as cities lockdown and citizens and employees stay at home.  This is forcing us to work together differently in how we collaborate, innovate, and serve our customers.

For many organizations and skills sets, working remotely was already a reality. For others it requires new disciplines, to form new habits, new behaviors, and new offerings. Remember that no matter where you are, teams can mobilize around a clear mission in order to take course correction actions during a crisis and establish agreed communication protocol and habits to adapt to the new reality.

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week. We started this discussion talking about urgency, based on your personal experience what separates strong leaders (at all levels) in responding to the challenges we are facing today?

Operating at the speed of the fastest is a core attribute of elite teamwork. Elite leaders at all levels of organizations require that balance of courage, integrity, empathy, judgment, and above all resilience. Displaying these qualities now at pace under intense pressure will provide strength to their organizations leading through chaos and getting ready for the future.

As we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are helping our clients manage current operations while preparing for the different scenarios that the future holds.  It is our hope that the COVID-19 disruption is brief and that you and your employees remain safe and healthy throughout.

Murphy Bright
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