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The Learning Leader

The Management Centre

The Learning Leader- what do you in a crisis?

Challenging times- especially crises- are a great reality check for ‘learning leadership’- whether you model an adaptive and flexible approach under pressure.

The premise is simple when things go wrong and are at least partly out of their control then great leaders can show how quickly they learn and help their organisation to do so… or not.

As it happens I’ve recently undertaken several assignments with charities advising CEOs and senior managers where there were crises a financial scandal, a major redundancy programme, and a potential PR disaster. I’ve also watched on tv, like you, the response of BP and the US administration to the Gulf oil spill crisis. The simple principles below are based on reflections out of those manic professional and public days…

I’ve identified five mistakes wannabe learning leaders sometimes make especially in a crisis or under pressure. Also below are my possible learning-based alternatives to these mistakes.

1. Hubris over humility.

When the plan runs on rails success seems easy. You can get lazy and even begin to believe your own hype on how clever you are.. . the ancient Greeks called it hubris. In an odd way the sudden dramatic crisis is easier to deal with. It promotes a sense of “all pulling together.”

But be aware the crisis doesn’t always emerge fast and with a blue light flashing. You may simply sanction the equivalent of carrying on making the slide rule when the electronic calculator comes out. A contemporary example is being obsessed with your website when the world has moved onto mobiles. However, ‘blindsided’ is as much a learning leadership failing as ‘blind panic.’


Begin by accepting in advance things will go wrong or at best change dramatically. Have a plan. And have a plan B. Test the plan against all kinds of disruptive scenarios. If the plan can cope with the very unlikely it will ride out the possible. Tell people about the plan. Let people know that ‘crisis’- fast changing and risky situations are the new normal.

2. Pressure pushing principles.

Sometimes leaders feel that they have to act quickly. (The recent BP oil spill is an example.) But if you don’t consider alternatives or seek other opinions from your key stakeholders what’s meant to be decisiveness can look like ignoring long-espoused core values about reflection, participation and engagement. The result is your ‘learning leader’ credibility vanishes and the negative effects are felt long past the crisis. The ‘cynics’ who always said it was just talk are seen to have been proved right.


Be clear on principles in advance and hold onto them throughout. The easy and seemingly pragmatic Faustian compromise can ruin reputations at a stroke. Also reflect before offering the instant yourself in a crisis- even if you think you do indeed know the answer. Let others help solve the challenge if you can. Or at least be seen to seek their opinion. You’ll look smarter- and they’ll feel smarter.

3. War Room Fever.

Sometimes in an emergency the CEO’s office feels like a bunker or war room. Acolytes come and go. Minions sit outside waiting for a chance to report. Even once you are admitted to ‘the presence,’ the leader watches for tweets and texts and emails with one eye while looking at the current minion out of the corner of the other as they share their tidbit of info. People can feel like simply another data stream.

A bigger problem is that while there’s manic action inside the bunker, outside everything else freezes up. There’s a collective holding of breath since it’s deemed unwise to do anything without sanction. People feel disempowered. And you need more than generals to fight a war.


Keep big stuff close to you but make time to identify do-able tasks that give others the chance to take action. Notice quick wins when others achieve them. Make it clear there are areas still in their control. Pay attention to the world and feelings outside the war room. Above all create momentum in parts of the system. A general needs troops!

4. Communication chaos.

In fast-moving situations, leaders can confuse the act of thinking with sharing ideas, logic or even decisions. They almost literally assume others know their decision processes and can read their minds. These amnesic leaders forget the importance of communicating regularly and systematically even if just to say, ‘nothing much has happened.’ In the chaos people make up information to fill the communication void. For employees and others it’s not clear what’s definite data and what’s random rumour. The result is confusion and unhappiness even when no one is trying to unsettle things.


Create a regular channel- even a simple intranet page- where people can find out ‘stuff’- and ask questions. Reply to any question within 24 hours. With information people can make good choices. Without information they feel panicked. (For all its failings- and there have been lots!- BP has recently tried to create a comms channel with eight live feeds to watch how oil spill rescue efforts are going Have the quote below tatoo-ed under your eyelids.

“If you think knowledge is expensive… try ignorance” Rosabeth Moss Kantor

5. Responding to the ringing phone:

when things are super busy it’s easy to pay attention to the loudest noise. So you as a learning leader may find yourself surrounded by the Casualties and the Cassandras. Casualties can be those who see their reputations or role being undermined and they want to complain loudly and often about this. Cassandras are those who are only too happy to explain how much worse the situation will get. They’re keen to share their doom-laded prognosis with you.
 Neither is a good focus for attention. You need to look out at the wider organisation.


First identify the key internal and external relationships you need to pay attention to and manage. Decide the ones that you must look after- and then delegate contact with the others to someone else. Take the pulse of the organisation as often as you can. Talk to ordinary people who run post-rooms, who clean toilets, and who speak quietly and don’t complain.

Get the Cassandras and the Casualties to talk to each other- ideally in a closed room!

As a ‘ leader’ you can model the learning behaviour you want and need best in a crisis. Or you can demonstrate that it’s really just a nice idea you read in a book somewhere. My advice is put the sentiment into practice.

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