Now that the horrifying, initial shock of the Grenfell Tower fire has subsided, the incident and its immediate aftermath can be assessed somewhat more objectively. One of the most prominent criticisms of the how the crisis was handled is that there appeared to be a leadership vacuum within Kensington and Chelsea Council, whose jurisdiction encompasses the stricken tower block and its surviving former residents.

On 30 June, the council’s leader and deputy leader both resigned, following widespread criticism over the organisation’s decision to ban journalists from its first cabinet meeting since the disaster. That decision deepened perceptions among survivors, and the wider public, that the council’s attitude to the incident was unduly aloof and detached. In the wake of those resignations, London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for even more council figures to go – and said that the organisation should be taken over by commissioners who would be better placed to “restore the confidence in that community”.

Criticisms have also been levelled at Westminster’s response. Confidence in the government’s forthcoming public inquiry into the fire has been undermined by the inquiry’s own chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick – who has said that the incident is unlikely to be considered within wide terms of reference.

All of which has contributed to the impression that attentiveness and sensitivity have been missing from leadership figures at both a local and national level. Which measures can managers and leaders implement to ensure that such process gaps will not open up in their own organisations?

The Institute of Leadership and Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This has parallels with the recent British Airways IT failure. As we explained in a blog about that incident, the real fault there was the absence of a robust and effective communications policy. In addition to that, one of the problems with crisis management and business-continuity planning is that managers and leaders are often not drawn to the idea of contemplating the very worst that could happen to their systems, and then setting up contingencies. Optimism bias can obscure that valuable process.”

Cooper explains: “In the case of the Grenfell Tower fire, the points that seem unclear are whether that worst-case scenario planning ever took place, and – in the aftermath of the incident – where the buck stopped. People with high levels of responsibility are typically paid high salaries. When things go badly wrong, examining the reasons why is what the relevant leaders and managers are paid to do. They must step up and say, ‘I own this’.”

She adds: “There are also threads in this that tie in with our emotional intelligence blog from a couple of weeks ago. Not only must organisations have significant empathy in these types of situations – it must be communicated, too, and backed up by visible action. That will provide tangible evidence not only that you are trying to fix things and put them right, but that you are doing so in an authentic way.”

For further insights into communication expertise, check out these resources from the Institute

Image of the Grenfell Tower courtesy of C. Hoyer, via Shutterstock