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#AdamAsks… How Do You Lead a Team Through an Unprecedented Crisis?

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​Earlier this year, our co-Founder Leon sat down to have #AdamAsks’ first remote chat with Martin Murphy, a former special forces soldier who is now an international advisor and coach to leaders and teams. On top of this, Martin is also an accomplished speaker and author, and has vast experience in forming and leading high performing teams - both in the special forces and in the commercial sector, where he has trained special project teams worldwide to effectively combat terrorism and narcotics smuggling.

Martin’s unique perspective on what makes great leadership in times of crisis made him a timely guest on #AdamAsks. During this unparalleled and unexpected crisis, he shared his experience and advice to business owners on how to adapt, evolve, and survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not one for authority

Martin kicks off by talking about how he ran away from home and a challenging upbringing at an early age, before joining the army to get himself on the straight and narrow. “I’ve had to be very self-reliant from an early age because of my background, and when I joined the military, I found that I wasn’t one for authority!”

This led Martin to ‘engineer’ his way into the reconnaissance platoon, being drawn to the immediate action and smaller teams. After training with the SAS, he right away knew that joining the SAS was something that he wanted to do – so he did.

After leaving the SAS, Martin began a career providing risk and threat assessments to airlines, and training teams to identify and prevent terrorism and narcotics smuggling. He has also written a book, Mercenaries to Missionaries, using the techniques he learnt within the special forces to help business leaders develop their teams and their leadership skills.

How does a sudden change affect people’s ability to make decisions?

“To be honest, this is the kind of challenge that we’re not very good at!” Martin says, going on to explain, “our inner-monkey will still react instantly to something coming straight at us. What we’re not very good at is problems arriving from out of the blue.”

He expands on this by explaining that, although we had some warning of the pandemic, we still were unprepared and we ‘went into denial’ before it hit us suddenly. Martin draws parallels to other crisis’ facing us as species such as global warming and societal injustices throughout the world. “We’re not reacting to them as quickly as we could do. We’re not treating them seriously.”

Martin explains that this is because there was no instant ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response, as there was a ‘delay’ where we were unsure what was happening, and that delay can cause real problems when it comes to emergency situations. “At a strategic level, we are not operating as we should be.”

“We become more of who we are when we’re faced with something like this.”

The conversation then moves on to the various coping mechanisms that Martin has witnessed in response to the COVID-19 crisis. “What you usually find is that people become more of who they already are,” Martin explains, “in business, for example, an entrepreneur will be more entrepreneurial and tackle the situation head-on. Analytical managers will try to analyse the situation more to find out more about it. Some people, for example coaches, will contribute more of themselves.”

He highlights frontline NHS staff as a shining example of this, with retired health professionals bringing themselves out of retirement and the long hours selfless healthcare professionals have spent, and are still spending, battling the virus - often at the expense of their own health and wellbeing.

The Four R’s of Resilience

When it comes to how people can shift their mindsets to cope with the current situation, Martin refers to the Four R’s of Resilience. “You should React, to make sure that you’re safe. Then you should Respond. Follow those by Re-grouping and finally, Re-route.”

Leon asks Martin what he believes good leadership looks like, and what types of leadership Martin is witnessing during the crisis. Martin uses one of his clients as an example of good leadership in a crisis.

“They reacted immediately, to get their staff out of the building and set up remotely, and they even considered sending employees whose families didn’t live in the UK to stay with them, for support. They really looked after their people. You should always look out for your people over everything else, because it will be the people that save the business.”

Martin also stresses the importance of good communication – both on a team level and an individual level. Good communication increases confidence, as without it people start filling in the blanks themselves. “Get people involved in the decision making,” he also advises, “don’t try to be font of all knowledge – ask your team. That empowers people, and empowered people respond and behave in a different way. They are more confident, pro-active, helpful, resilient, and optimistic.”

Bad leadership in a time of crisis

Naturally, the conversation then moves onto the topic of bad leadership, with Leon asking Martin how he’s seen bad leadership manifest during the pandemic. “Like I said earlier, in a situation such as this one, we become more of who we are.”

Martin uses certain world leaders as an example here, highlighting how some of the world’s most powerful leaders have ‘dismissed’ the crisis at hand, as they have gotten their priorities wrong. “They’re thinking about the businesses first. Protect the people, and the people will protect the businesses, and bring them back from the brink. It is situational blindness. Not having a real awareness of the situation, but still pontificating about what people should do. Let the experts tell you what to do!”

Traits of a good leader

The best and most effective leaders must be level-headed under extreme pressure, but what other traits make up a good leader? “You have to be supportive, but also decisive. You have got to be thinking about opportunities and challenge the status quo. And you also have to be a good problem solver in situations such as this.” Martin states.

He goes on to explain that, as a leader, you should aim to support and empower your team. Ask yourself how you can support them, and when you are looking at an individual’s situation don’t just look at output, but ask how that person is doing. Align your team, so that they have a collective mission and purpose to work toward. And, of course, keep open all lines of communication. “It’s really a case of how we connect, collaborate, and communicate effectively.”

Empowering your team

As Martin mentioned earlier, making sure that your team feels included and empowered at work during a crisis such as the current pandemic is incredibly important. Martin utilises a ‘HERO mindset’, with HERO being an acronym for Helpful, Effective, Resilient, Optimistic.

“Try and encourage all of these things within your team,” he advises, “Promote positive behaviours in people. Acknowledge when someone is doing the right things. Be helpful – this is really important.”

He move on to the importance of being purpose-driven, and how it can help people in even the direst of circumstances. “By having a purpose outside of yourself, it can actually help reduce anxiety.”

It is also important to remain level-headed in a crisis, but this is easier said than done. Martin reminds listeners that the current pandemic is an emerging situation, changing constantly, and that any decisions you make should take this into account – no matter how urgent the decisions seem in the moment. By distancing yourself from the decision for a while, by going for a walk or working on something different, it allows ideas to ‘percolate’ in your mind, enabling your brain to work through the problem in the background.

“What we don’t want is to go back to ‘Business as Usual’”

Looking towards the future, Martin is very optimistic. Both Martin and Leon agree that this is an ideal opportunity for many businesses to reflect on their offering and consider how they are going to reinvent themselves to come back stronger. “We need to remember the things that we have learnt from this,” Martin cautions, “What we don’t want to do is return to ‘Business as Usual’. We need to evolve from this.”

He advises taking stock, asking yourself what you have learnt, analyse where your opportunities lie, and then begin to think about moving forward.

When it comes to the future, Martin encourages leaders to think about a better world. By thinking about what the future looks like, how you can maintain some of the benefits that have come out of the situation, and how you can use what you have learnt. An example of this is that Martin believes we need to be more reactive and respond to crisis’ before they reach a climax – unlike how our government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Good leaders are just ordinary people doing extraordinary things, leading themselves and other people by example into a better world for everyone. And that is what we need to do going forward – we need to be more socially just, more environmentally sustainable, and make our country a good place to live and work.”

You can listen to the full episode of #AdamAsks here, and you can follow Martin on LinkedIn and Twitter, or visit his website. His book, From Mercenaries to Missionaries: Designing, Developing and Leading High Performing Teams in Your Growing Business, is available from Amazon. Don’t forget to follow We Are Adam on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram to stay up to date on all #AdamAsks episodes!