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When the finger’s pointing at you

As London gets going again after a series of terrorist attacks these last weeks, there is mounting political pressure from its government to get Big Tech to play a hand in stopping attacks before they happen. This is not only, of course, a British issue – many countries, including the US, have pointed the finger at Silicon Valley and demanded that more be done to stop jihadists from using its products. What will come of these injunctions remains to be seen.

The CEOs of the big technology companies will – at least individually – try to keep out of this debate, though eventually they will have to defend themselves. The scenario of huge and sudden pressure to act, or, at the very least, respond to an event, is familiar to anyone in a leadership position. These sorts of highly-pressurized situations, where the right things need to be said, or done, or seen to be done, are tough to handle well. This is because the catalyst is so often emotional, and the problems or issues are incredibly complex.

How you navigate your way through a crisis of this kind, even if the crisis is not of your own making, or indeed completely out of your control, is often a defining moment of a leader. It is especially true when the pressure is less about money than it is about primal human emotions.

The first principle of crisis management is not to make any sudden movements, to make sure you’re prepared with as much information as possible, and to recognize that when the facts change it’s okay to change your mind. Maybe you’re being asked to shoulder responsibility for something that isn’t remotely your fault or maybe you don’t yet realize it is your fault. Whichever it is, you don’t want to make the situation worse by downplaying it or pretending it’s not there.

The secondary issue is to make sure you’re keeping focussed on the long term outlook – because the agenda moves pretty quickly, and – as they say – this too shall pass. You want to be as effective as possible in the short term, while not binding yourself to any hasty decisions made in the spirit of appeasement.  You don’t want to make promises you’re not willing to keep, or which in the cold light of day, don’t make sense.

However, far and away the most important element of leadership in a crisis is to give it a human face. Owning the problem, taking responsibility, and saying the right things in the right ways at the right time is almost as important as what happens next.  It has to be handled from the top, and you need to be at the centre of it.

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