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Why do CEOs so often get it wrong in a crisis?


The reaction of audiences, all too often, as they watch the slow-motion incident disintegrate into crisis, as the CEO or C-Suite colleague, emotionally vents their position in denial, or in defence of the indefensible.

How the hell did that happen? What were they thinking? Who, in their right mind, advised them?

Strong leaders have strong opinions

The answer is their humanity did. We all have opinions, personalities and biases that inform our actions and decisions - and leaders are chosen because they have strong opinions and have real confidence in those opinions. Nearly 30 years of advisory work in times of crises has shown me these are the traits of leaders. Confidence, certainty and determination accelerate the pace of change and drive performance, yet in the heat of crisis, authority and control can be undermined and the information and data upon which business as usual takes place, scarce.

How leaders react, matters. The challenge in a crisis comes when the leader is faced with the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Circumstances, that suggest they weren’t entirely correct; that suggest even if they were correct, they were wrong; or even circumstances where they started off being right, but the world moved and has now decided they were wrong. In 30 years of advising leaders through systemic threats and major crises, it is this clash of unstoppable external circumstance against the leader’s immovable decisiveness, and need for information and to be in control, that so often causes the greatest impact from a crisis. The leadership biases that emerge under extreme pressure.

Common biases

Tiredness effect

In all, I have researched 11 biases observed over the last few decades. They all share a common trait, humanity. Under attack we all react. This is why understanding is so important. What makes our leaders great at their very best, can result in them being their own worst enemy in a crisis. Hero bias, being on the front line, never sleeping, is okay if your crisis only lasts a day or two, but there is a reason operational businesses always have rotas and deputies. Tiredness, and its consequence, isn’t the preserve of everyone else.

Persecution bias

Then comes persecution bias. From the outside it might be hard to reconcile the fact that so many senior executives in financial services felt persecution bias following the financial crisis. Everyone blames us, everyone is against us, everyone is out to get us. It makes it hard to separate the reality of what really happened, from the attack. It all too often leads to a flight to fight response. We won’t engage because they are just against us, until we get too cross, that we have to fight every fight. A result that serves only to prolong the story, injustice or not. And it is this blinds us from being able to fix the problem. Perhaps something for the new commissioner of the Met Police to consider.

Crusade bias

The public sector and the third sector also suffer the extremes of biases under pressure. Even our political leaders! Those surrounding Boris Johnson as PM, blinded by the man and his mission to ‘get Brexit done’ or ‘level up’, built his defence and their justification of his behaviours on a public good they believed in, but against the uncomfortable truths. Yet in doing so, they enabled worse to come causing irreparable damage that led to his downfall. And this is not party political, a read of Damian McBride’s confessional book Power Trip, as Gordon Brown’s “mad dog” press secretary, for “the greatest man I have ever met”, goes to show the danger of believing you are doing god’s work. And as for Liz Truss and her supporters, I fear we are already seeing a combination of Persecution Bias and crusade bias, as the “left wing economic establishment” conspired against her and her incredible plans that would have transformed the British economy.

Good counsel

Our research into leadership biases is about the humanity of leadership. I can’t cover all the biases one article and I won’t have observed every leadership bias. Yet, leaders, in business, in government, in wider society, all need good counsel around them, individuals who can help identify and navigate the personal, not just the challenge. The trusted advisers who get the loneliness of being at the top, and the fact that despite it all, leaders are people. People who need the best possible support, not blind loyalty, to help them find the best possible answer in the most difficult of circumstances.

Written by George Hutchinson, CEO or reputation risk and crisis response advisory River Effra

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