Deputising in a crisis

Dominic Raab is leading the UK through coronavirus hurdles as the “designated survivor.” With Boris Johnson in intensive care, the foreign secretary is required to run the country during the most significant public health crisis in a generation. This will include chairing Cobra and cabinet meeting for the time being, until Johnson’s health and his prospects of returning to cabinet improve.

During the rapid transition of changing roles such as this, we often see a leader’s ‘true colours’. But what does this mean?

We examine the capacity of the deputy to step up and replace the senior leader.

Essentially it comes down to their readiness to step into the role and take on the waves of data that are about to hit. The degree of success that occurs with this can be broken down into internal and external reasoning and how they interrelate.

The internal readiness comes from the development of the individual. This, of course, is a large number of lines of development, influenced by experience and maturity levels.
A leader tends to return to their most stable traits, anchored accordingly on each line of development according to their journey.

For example, if the deputy usually operates from an authoritarian trait but was practising distributed leadership with varying frequency, when projected into a new position, overwhelming waves of new data can shut down their pre-frontal lobe and return them to fight, flight, or freeze, meaning they return to the ‘safe zone’ and take control.

The second component of the individual’s readiness is their breadth and depth of connection and insight into the external factors such as community, systems, and structures that surround them. A healthy head of one department with a great team, may not have the same stature or expertise in the other sections of the company. The level of new data due to fragmented insight means shallow perception. Again, this can be illustrated through choices and behaviours that are observed in crisis mode, influencing the trust levels that the community is willing to invest in.

If the deputy has worked in various parts of the company on their journey to being a leader, they may have developed the ability to self-regulate their physiology, emotions, and feelings that dictate thinking and behaviour. They may be more ready to take on the role, having been mentored and coached by the leader, and they may therefore have the ability to take up the position respectfully. The illustration of this is usually seen in quickly dampening fear and anxiety and even seeing the crisis as an opportunity to develop themselves and those they serve. Their mindset is to grow, not retract. This will still be a challenge. We have all stepped into new roles with levels of responsibility and pressure. Yet with an already well-developed team of leaders that were in place, colleagues can provide the support structures for new leaders.

The readiness comes from the approach of leaders to have built-in sustainability, preferably from the bottom up. If each member of the team sees themselves as leaders and adopts the same framework aligned with the vision, values, and morals of the company, the domino effect of stepping up should see each member to step in and up.

By Professor Ben Laker and Matt Silver.

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