Leadership in times of crisis:

How to help first responders to survive and thrive
during a time of profound change



As we struggle to come to terms with this new reality, police officers are under even more pressure to keep this country safe. It’s clear that pandemic has made an already stressful job even more challenging as police forces have to enforce the lockdown and deal with a lot of the fall-out from this crisis while minimising the risk of infection. 


Damian Hughes has studied the most successful sports coaches to learn about effective leadership and write the bestselling book 'The Five Steps to a Winning Mindset - What Sport can Teach Us About Great Leadership. And while policing is very different to sport, strong leadership is needed for both. Here, he shares his insights on how leaders can guide their team to behave cohesively and foster resilience. 

Hughes uses the acronym STEPS for the five elements of good leadership:



We live in a time where we are bombarded with information and digital interruptions - according to some studies 37 an hour, which hamper our efforts to concentrate. The many unknowns of the current crisis also creates ambiguity, which makes it harder to focus. Hughes asks, 'How do you differentiate in the deafening noise of information and distraction? How do you get people to focus? The answer is that in a time of overload you need to keep it simple.' He explains that in times of change, great leaders ask themselves how much information the people in their team are capable of processing. True leadership is not about sending out a lot of relevant messages, but picking the most important and communicate it as simply as possible. This can often be done by delivering the Bottom Line Up Front, also referred to as BLUF, used by the most successful Hollywood writers as well as business executives. 



The heuristics we all develop for everyday life, often don't apply in times of changes. Without being able to fall back on tried and tested systems, reflection is necessary to respond to new challenges intelligently. Hughes says, 'Thinking and processing, as well as retaining information, is crucial for making intelligent decisions. This is why you need to create a space where people have the time to stop and think.' He also underlines the importance to provide an environment where people feel safe to ask questions, trusting that they will be handled sensitively.



To illustrate the importance of emotional intelligence, Hughes quotes Emmanuel Steward, the head coach of Kronk, one of the most successful US boxing gyms. He says a coach needs to 'contain [emotions] then explain'. This includes acknowledging and responding to the often difficult feelings of the people he trains. This kind of emotional intelligence is also crucial for leaders during times of stress. 'If we take those three words to heart, we can all successfully handle and thrive in the face of change', says Hughes. He draws on insights from neuroscience, explaining that stress often triggers a 'freeze, fight or flight' response, rather than activating our more rational thinking circuits. To access these, people need to feel safe, in control and valued, as feeling safe is the key to handling change.



Abstraction can lead to ambiguity and incorrect interpretations. 'Strip language of anything that could be misconstrued,' says Hughes. He then cites a quote, which is often attributed to Albert Einstein: 'If you can't explain it simply to a six-year-old, you don't understand it well enough.'



Stories have the power to inspire, as our brains are prepared to listen to and absorb narratives more readily than fact. 'In times of change, telling stories is the most effective tool you can use,' he says. And the best way to tell them is, of course, simply. Pixar is, for example, extremely good at simple but poignant stories always following the following structure:

  • Once upon a time…
  • Every day….
  • Once…
  • Because of that…
  • Because of that…
  • Until finally…



He suggests to ask yourself:

  • 'Is my message simple?'
  • 'Have I created time and space to stop and think?'
  • 'Am I containing and then explaining?'
  • 'Have I stripped my language of jargon to make it accessible and understandable?'
  • 'Have I got stories to illustrate how people have navigated change?'
  • 'If you have said, yes, I want to give you confidence that you have the skills to survive and thrive during change.'

These are just the top-line principles of his STEPS approach for the full webinar, including his illustrations and experiments, click here.

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