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Leadership in Crisis – Reconfirm Structure


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to teach them how to help businesses innovate. 

I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis. Of course this is more relevant than ever today. 

In this series of Leadership in Crisis videos we’re learning that the type of leadership you need during crisis is directive leadership. The next thing you need to do is re-establish and reconfirm the structure. How do you do that and what structure are we talking about? Within businesses and within teams, we talk about a structure of boundaries, a structure of hierarchy and an authority structure. We’re also talking about a relational structure and a cultural structure, which we might talk about later.


Boundaries First


So let’s talk about boundaries first. Within the team we have three types of boundaries, major external, which makes the distinction between the environment and the members who’s in, who’s out. Major internal, which differentiates between members and leaders. So who has the decision making power on the minor internal boundaries, which differentiates the departments or categories of membership within the team. 

When we are dealing with crisis we usually see that all these boundaries or one or two boundaries are breached. So that means that the external boundary can be breached when there’s so much environmental pressure that the environmental influences come into the organization. We talk about a breach of major internal boundary where people really don’t support the leadership and take over leadership tasks. And we talk about a breach of the minor internal boundary where departmental roles and tasks start flowing into each other and nobody really knows who’s responsible for what anymore. 

So crisis creates breaches of boundaries. One of the first things that leaders have to do is to re-establish the boundaries. The order of play is:

  1. Re-establish a major internal boundary – re-establish the leadership
  2. Re-establish the relationship between members and leaders. 
  3. Re-establish the relationship between the organization and the environment to create unusual partnerships.

How do you do that? 

Re-establish major internal boundaries

  • Physical location: Make sure the crisis team is in one location and everybody knows where that location is. People know there’s a centralized leadership and all the decisions are taken there. All communication goes through that point if it’s relevant to the crisis.
  • Recognisable Crisis Team: In terms of communication with other people, it’s very clear who’s in the crisis team. In that sense you create a clear major internal boundary. Interestingly enough, we usually see that happen when everyone wears the same suits for example.
  • Offer to members: Make sure that people know that you’re there for them. Directional leadership offers hope, structure and love. A boundary is objective and also subjective. So you have to know that when you re-establish boundaries, you’re doing something physically like a room, but you’re also doing something subjectively, like giving hope, direction and love.
  • Accountability: Make sure they also know you’re accountable. So success or failure, you’re accountable.


Re-establish the major external boundary


Make it very clear who’s in and who’s out. During crisis you can create unusual partnerships. So in a sense your major external boundary gets more permeable, but you have to re-establish who’s in before you can create partnerships. This is the paradox of partnership. You have to be clear about who you are before you can create a relationship. 

When we talk about re-establishing the major external boundary, what we’re talking about is being very clear about when you’re a member and when you’re not a member. During normal business time when it’s not crisis, people walk in and out, suppliers sometimes become part of the organization. In times of crisis the boundaries become very clear.

In the time of Coronavirus we’re re-establishing our national boundaries. Germany sees the Dutch as people who are at risk because we’ve chosen a policy of controlled infection rates and Germany has chosen for lock-down. The whole discussion about Europe being one is set aside and we are closing national boundaries. We need to re-establish the major external boundary and say, “You are part of my tribe and you’re not.”

In the case of countries, it’s your national boundaries. In the case of organizations, it may be the fence around your factory, or someone who gets a passcode to get in. It might be who has access to the computers or intranet. Temporary workers might be dismissed so that the resources that are left in the organization are only shared with the people who are members. 

You see this in tribal law: when there’s famine only the clan gets fed. It’s painful sometimes, but natural. 

Luckily we also have unusual partnerships, which I’ll talk about later! So first you re-establish the major internal boundary by establishing a crisis team who controls decision making, communication and who’s there for you. Then you establish the major external boundaries to making sure who’s in and who’s out. Some people do it the other way around and that’s also possible. It depends on if you’re a startup or an established company.


Re-establish minor internal boundaries


The next step is to re-establish the minor internal boundaries, but actually in times of crisis, those are very loosely held. In crisis anyone who’s part of the organization becomes responsible for everything in the sense that it doesn’t really matter anymore who does it as long as it gets done. Role definitions become fluid between the members. You have to be very careful that they don’t get fluid in the leadership.


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Published On: April 22nd, 2020By Categories: Leadership, Videos


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