By Ray Williams
The pandemic, climate change and political crises has brought into focus the critical need for leaders who know how to lead during a crisis. We’ve witnessed both the good and bad examples locally, nationally and internationally. I think we can all quickly identify them by name.
There have been crises before in history, some globally such as world wars, the depression and another pandemic, the 1918 Spanish flu. There were great leaders during those crises who we could quickly identify—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Mandela. In examining the behaviors of those successful crisis leaders, and in contrast, those of failed crisis leaders, we can see some common attitudes, behaviors and actions that can inform us today.
According to a PR firm Burson-Marsteller CEO reputation survey, 21 percent of the 194 CEOs who responded said they had no crisis plan whatsoever when the terrorist events of 9/11 happened. But the study also revealed that 63 percent have started to readdress their crisis planning in the wake of 9/11/2001, and 85 percent of CEOs said it was absolutely crucial or very important for the CEO to be the figurehead during a crisis.
Frances Hesselbein, editor-in-chief of Leader to Leader and chairman of the board of governors of the Drucker Foundation, points out that crisis management is a test of the quality and character of leadership as much as it is a test of skill.Leaders today are facing an enormous test of character. According to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey, more than 65 serious financial crises occurred in the past 10 years, almost one-and- a-half times the number recorded during the 1980s.
Historically, politics and crisis go hand in hand. In describing crisis, President Abraham Lincoln said, “We live in the midst of alarms, anxiety beclouds the future; we expect some new disaster with each newspaper we read.”
Public leaders have a special responsibility to help safeguard society from the adverse consequences of crisis. Experts in crisis management note that leaders who take this responsibility seriously would have to concern themselves with all crisis phases: the incubation stage, the onset, and the aftermath.
The five facets of crisis leadership are:
- Sense making may be considered as the classical situation assessment step in decision making.
- Decision-making is both the act of coming to a decision as the implementation of that decision.
- Meaning making refers to crisis management as political communication.
- Terminating a crisis is only possible if the public leader correctly handles the accountability question.
- Learning refers to the actual learning from a crisis is limited. A crisis often opens a window of opportunity for reform for better or for worse.
The Dos and Don’ts About Processing Information During a Crisis
By understanding how people take in information during a crisis state, we can better plan to communicate with them. During a crisis:
We over-simplify messages. Under intense stress and possible information overload, we tend to miss the nuances of health and safety messages by doing the following: not fully hearing information because of our inability to juggle multiple facts during a crisis; not remembering as much of the information as we normally could; misinterpreting confusing action messages.
To cope, many of us may not attempt a logical and reasoned approach to decision making. Instead, we may rely on habits and long-held practices. While it’s important to understand and communicate the core issues associated with a crisis, care must be taken to not over-simplify those messages.
We hold on to current beliefs. Crisis communication sometimes requires asking people to do something that seems counterintuitive, such as evacuating even when the weather looks calm. Changing our beliefs during a crisis or emergency may be difficult. Beliefs are often held very strongly and not easily altered. We tend not to seek evidence that contradicts beliefs we already hold. We also tend to exploit any conflicting or unclear messages about a subject by interpreting it as consistent with existing beliefs.
The tendency of experts to offer opposing views leaves many of us with increased uncertainty and fear. We may be more likely to take advice from a trusted source with which we are familiar, even if this source does not have emergency-related expertise and provides inaccurate information. We should believe that messages come from a credible and expert source, rather than what we are witnessing often today, a media commentator’s opinion.
We believe the first message. During a crisis, the speed of a response can be an important factor in reducing harm. In the absence of information, we may begin to speculate and fill in the blanks. This often results in rumors. The first message to reach us may be the acpted message, even though more accurate information may follow. When new, perhaps more complete information becomes available, we compare it to the first message we heard.
Because of the ways we process information while under stress, when communicating with someone facing a crisis or disaster, messages should be simple, credible, and consistent.
Speed is also very important when communicating in an emergency. An effective message must do the following: it’s repetitive; it comes from multiple credible sources; it’s specific to the emergency being experienced; it offers a positive course of action that can be executed; and it’s delivered quickly.
We avoid uncertainty. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers during a crisis, especially in the beginning. At that time, the full magnitude of the crisis, the cause of the disaster, and the actions that people can take to protect themselves may be unclear. This uncertainty will challenge even the greatest communicator. To reduce their anxiety, people seek out information to determine their options and confirm or disconfirm their beliefs. They may choose a familiar source of information over a less familiar source, regardless of the accuracy of the provided information.They may discount information that is distressing or overwhelming.
Many communicators and leaders have been taught to sound confident even when they are uncertain. While this may inspire trust, there is a potential for overconfidence, which can backfire. It is important to remember that an over-reassured public isn’t the goal. Leaders want people to be concerned, remain vigilant, and take all the right precautions. Leaders should acknowledge and express empathy for the audience’s uncertainty and share with them the process the leader is using to get more information about the evolving situation. This will help people to manage their anxiety. Leaders must tell them:“What you know; what you don’t know; what process you are using to get answers.”
Acknowledge fear, anxiety and dread. In a crisis, people feel fear, anxiety, confusion, and intense dread. A leader’s job is not to make these feelings go away. Instead leaders need to acknowledge them in a statement of empathy, such as “we’ve never faced anything like this before and it can be frightening.” Fear is an important psychological consideration in the response to a threat. In some cases, a perceived threat can motivate and help people take desired actions. In other cases, fear of the unknown or fear of uncertainty may be the most debilitating of the psychological responses to disasters and prevent people from taking action.
When people are afraid, and do not have adequate information, they may react in inappropriate ways to avoid the threat. Communicators can help by portraying an accurate assessment of the level of danger and providing action messages so that affected people do not feel helpless.
Acknowledge hopelessness and helplessness. Avoiding hopelessness and helplessness is a leader’s communication objective during a crisis. Hopelessnessis the feeling that nothing can be done by anyone to make the situation better. People may accept that a threat is real, but that threat may loom so large that they feel the situation is hopeless. Helplessness is the feeling that people have that they, themselves, have no power to improve their situation or protect themselves.
If a people feel helpless to protect themselves they may withdraw mentally or physically. According to psychological research, if community members let their feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion, and dread grow unchecked during a crisis, they will most likely begin to feel hopeless or helpless.
If this happens, community members will be less motivated and less able to take actions that could help themselves. Instead of trying to eliminate a community’s emotional responses to the crisis, help community members manage their negative feelings by setting them on a course of action. Taking an action during a crisis can help to restore a sense of control and overcome feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Helping the public feel empowered and in control of at least some parts of their lives may also reduce fear.
As much as possible, leaders need to advise people to take actions that are constructive and directly relate to the crisis they’re facing. These actions may be symbolic, such as putting up a flag or preparatory, such as donating blood or creating a family check-in plan, or helping the homeless.
What about panic? Contrary to what you may see in the movies, people seldom act completely irrationally during a crisis. During an emergency, people absorb and act on information differently from nonemergency situations. This is due, in part, to the fight-or-flight mechanism.The natural drive to take some action in response to a threat is sometime described as the fight-or-flight response. Emergencies create threats to our health and safety that can create severe anxiety, stress, and the need to do something.
These rational reactions to a crisis, particularly when at the extreme ends of fight-or-flight, are often described erroneously as “panic” by the media. Response officials may be concerned that people will collctively “panic” by disregarding official instructions and creating chaos, particularly in public places.
This is also unlikely to occur. If response officials describe survival behaviors as “panic,” they will alienate their audience. Almost no one believes he or she is panicking because people understand the rational thought process behind their actions, even if that rationality is hidden to spectators. Instead, officials should acknowledge people’s desire to take protective steps, redirect them to actions they can take, and explain why the unwanted behavior is potentially harmful to them or the community. Officials can appeal to people’s sense of community to help them resist unwanted actions focused on individual protection.
In addition, a lack of information or conflicting information from authorities is likely to create heightened anxiety and emotional distress. If you start hedging or hiding the bad news, you increase the risk of a confused, angry, and uncooperative public.
For the broader strategy, tips can be gleaned from the National Defense University (NDU), an American military college. In 2006 it produced a useful—and prescient—report called “Weathering the Storm: Leading Your Organization Through a Pandemic”. It advised leaders to analyse the tasks required for an organization to continue operating and prioritize them. To ensure essential functions can be performed, employees should be trained in different disciplines. That way they can cover for colleagues who become sick.
What Do the Crisis Management Experts Say?
Tim Johnson, a London-based crisis consultant and the author of Crisis Leadership,drawing on academic research, focuses less on the need for flowcharts and checklists and more on developing a “crisis-ready culture.” That means choosing and developing leaders who are steady enough to make deliberate, wise decisions even as the world speeds up—which is essentially what happens during a crisis.Johnson describes a fight-or-flight response which can lead to bad choices: “intervention bias,” or the urge to overreach and take on tasks for which an organization is ill equipped; and “abdication bias,” which causes one to eschew responsibility or blame others.
Leading in a crisis, he argues, requires avoiding these impulses and instead figuring out what’s really happening, thinking hard about stakeholders’ needs, and creating a purposeful mission to guide the response. “Resist the urge to do anything immediately,” he writes. Ignore the adrenaline, work with a high-performing team, get the facts, ask questions, and listen; then make a plan.
Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School, examines a different kind of crisis: one that drags on, putting a leader in a continual, unending stress. In her book, Forged in Crisis, she describes five leaders who experienced such stress: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (an anti-Nazi German clergyman), and the 1960s environmentalist Rachel Carson. Koehn sees a calm and cool deliberateness and patience.
Lincoln, for instance, she says “discovered the power of mastering his emotions in a specific situation carefully enough to take no immediate action or, in some instances, to do nothing at all. “In our own white-hot moment,” she writes, “when so much of our time and attention is focused on instantaneous reaction, it seems almost inconceivable that nothing might be the best something we can offer.” Yet history suggests that in some crises, it is.
According to James Haggerty, who specializes in crisis management, if you’re caught so flat-footed that you need outside help immediately, you’re already behind. In Chief Crisis Officer, he suggests that companies take three preemptive steps: designate an insider who will manage any situation that might arise (not the CEO, but someone trusted enough to make a big decision—such as the CEO’s chief of staff, an experienced PR hand, or an assistant general counsel); appoint a rapid response team to help that person; and give that team some scenario training.
Meta-leadership has been “derived through observation and analysis of leaders in crisis circumstances”starting with the September 11 attacks in the U.S. The framework was developed by Leonard J. Marcus and Barry Dorn of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Joseph M. Henderson Chief of Staff at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and first published in 2006.
The need for such an expansive view of leadership was driven by the increased complexity of natural and manmade threats facing the United States.The challenge was illustrated by the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina that “revealed profound system weaknesses.”
Marcus, Dorn, and Henderson posited that “Leadership, as commonly understood, works to build the capacity within organizations. We premise here that a different brand of leadership is necessary to get beyond that silo thinking to achieve cross-agency and cross-government coordination of strategy and effort for national terrorism and emergency preparedness.” As a framework and practice method, meta-leadership draws upon and integrates a wide range of extant leadership scholarship,including that on transformational leadership, shared leadership, followership, complex adaptive leadership, and others.
The Three Dimensions of Meta-Leadership
- The person of the Meta-Leader (self-knowledge, awareness, and regulation): Meta-leaders develop high self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-regulation. They build the capacity to confront fear and lead themselves and others out of the “emotional basement” to higher levels of thinking and functioning.
- The situation (discerning the context for leadership): With often incomplete information, the meta-leader maps the situation to determine what is happening, who are the stakeholders, what is likely to happen next, and what are the critical choice points and options for action.
- Connectivity (fostering positive, productive relationships): The meta-leader charts a course forward, making decisions, operationalizing those decisions, and communicating effectively to recruit wide engagement and support.
The unfortunate reality of current responses today’s crises is that in many jurisdictions, the knowledge developed and shared about meta-leadership seems to have been ignored or forgotten.
Examples of Bad and Good Leader Responses During a Crisis
Of course, we are all familiar with the great leadership shown by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II as examples. Here’s a few more.
Good Leader Responses
Tylenol (Johnson and Johnson)
In the fall of 1982, a murderer added 65 milligrams of cyanide to some Tylenol capsules on store shelves, killing seven people, including three in one family. Johnson & Johnson recalled and destroyed 31 million capsules at a cost of $100 million. The affable CEO, James Burke, appeared in television ads and at news conferences informing consumers of the company’s actions. Tamper-resistant packaging was rapidly introduced, and Tylenol sales swiftly bounced back to near pre-crisis levels.When another bottle of tainted Tylenol was discovered in a store, it took only a matter of minutes for the manufacturer to issue a nationwide warning that people should not use the medication in its capsule form.
When Odwalla‘s apple juice was thought to be the cause of an outbreak of E. coli infection, the company lost a third of its market value. In October 1996, an outbreak of E. coli bacteria in Washington state, California, Colorado and British Columbia was traced to unpasteurized apple juice manufactured by natural juice maker Odwalla Inc. Forty-nine cases were reported, including the death of a small child. Within 24 hours, Odwalla conferred with the FDA and Washington state health officials; established a schedule of daily press briefings; sent out press releases which announced the recall; expressed remorse, concern and apology, and took responsibility for anyone harmed by their products; detailed symptoms of E. coli poisoning; and explained what consumers should do with any affected products.
Odwalla then developed – through the help of consultants – effective thermal processes that would not harm the products’ flavors when production resumed. All of these steps were communicated through close relations with the media and through full-page newspaper ads.
Bad Leader Responses
Ford and Firestone Tire and Rubber Company
The Ford-Firestone Tire and Rubber Company dispute transpired in August 2000. In response to claims that their 15-inch Wilderness AT, radial ATX and ATX II tire treads were separating from the tire core—leading to crashes—Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires. These tires were mostly used on the Ford Explorer, the world’s top-selling sport utility vehicle (SUV).The two companies committed three major blunders early on, say crisis experts.
First, they blamed consumers for not inflating their tires properly. Then they blamed each other for faulty tires and faulty vehicle design. Then they said very little about what they were doing to solve a problem that had caused more than 100 deaths—until they got called to Washington to testify before Congress.
On 24 March 1989, a tanker belonging to the Exxon Corporation ran aground in the Prince William Sound in Alaska. The Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off Valdez, killing thousands of fish, fowl, and sea otters. Hundreds of miles of coastline were polluted and salmon spawning runs disrupted; numerous fishermen, especially Native Americans, lost their livelihoods. Exxon did not react quickly in terms of dealing with the media and the public; the CEO, Lawrence Rawl, did not become an active part of the public relations effort and actually shunned public involvement. The company had neither a communication plan nor a communication team in place to handle the event.
The company did not appoint a public relations manager to its management team until 1993, four years after the incident. Exxon established its media center in Valdez, a location too small and too remote to handle the onslaught of media attention. And the company acted defensively in its response to its publics, even laying blame, at times, on other groups such as the Coast Guard. To this day, there remains some environmental damage present in the area.
Above all, leaders need to demonstrate character. This entails showing courage, integrity, honesty, humility, compassion, empathy and vulnerability so that others will trust and be inspired to act positively, and follow the model set by the leader.
Here’s a summary of the attitudes, behaviors and actions of good and great crisis leader
Leaders should focus on fact finding. Initial reports are generally inaccurate because the people relaying the information tend to overstate or understate the direness of the situation or because the reports are too full of emotion to be of any real value. One of a leader’s first actions should be to send a trusted agent or expert(s) to the scene of the crisis with the sole purpose of gathering information and reporting back to you and your staff. If the crisis is serious enough, the organization’s or institution’s senior leader should go to the crisis area.
Leaders who understand the connection between emotion and behavior will be more effective during a crisis because they will understand how to meet the needs of people in the organization and so influence their behavior. They can focus on communicating, establishing clarity about personal and organizational vision and values, and displaying their care for people at all levels of the organization. Leadership aimed at meeting essential human needs—social, security, and acceptance—can inspire positive or, at worst, neutral behaviors from your direct reports.
Small actions such as being available, listening, sharing available information, commending those who do outstanding work during the crisis, remaining positive and upbeat, and giving people time off to take care of personal issues related to the crisis sound so simple, but they aren’t always easy to carry out.
Leaders should maintain visual and auditory contact with your team. The United States Army’s psychological studies conducted after World War II revealed that soldiers fought harder and longer when they could visually see their comrades on the battlefield. As S. L. A. Marshall describes in his book Men Against Fire, if for some reason soldiers lost sight of their comrades, they would stop fighting and become paralyzed or they would move until they could regain visual contact with their buddies. Many small-unit leaders recognized this phenomenon during the war and responded by placing two men in every foxhole.
During the Korean War and ever since, never was only one man placed in a foxhole. This human need for contact—social and even visual— is clearly significant for any leader’s efforts during a crisis. In our current technological age, during a pandemic which may require social distancing, keeping connections with people via video has an added benefit over strictly the audio that phones provide.
Leaders should communicate clearly and often during a crisis. A leader has some advantage if the organization’s or the government’s crisis action plan (CAP) has set up some communication guidelines. With or without a guide, however, the bottom line is simple: keep internal and external communication lines open and working so that everyone is informed and they don’t have to make up their own stories about the crisis.
What leadership initially communicates to the organization’s internal and external stakeholders should include (and generally be limited to) the known details of the situation, what went wrong and why, what is being done to deal with the immediate situation, and the actions that are and will be taken to ensure the situation does not happen again.
Leaders should stick to the facts and avoid conjecture. In all public statements, leaders need to be truthful, accurate, and honest. This strategy may have unintended or unexpected consequences, but the consequences of misleading stakeholders, the public, or especially the media, will certainly be negative and damaging. Leaders who try to protect their organizations, institutions or themselves with a cover-up or by stonewalling will damage the credibility of both. Credibility and trust are easily lost in a crisis without lying—why guarantee their loss by not telling the truth?
Leaders should apologize if necessary. People are more forgiving of leaders who admit mistakes and promise to correct them than they are of leaders who have neither the character nor courage to admit wrong. If injuries or deaths resulted from the crisis, emphasize concern for victims and their families. Obviously, this kind of situation calls for a compassionate, sympathetic, and sensitive demeanor and tone. As they communicate to others, leaders should remain aware of their own feelings about the crisis and its impact on others and themselves.
Leaders can gain a great deal of credibility if they are open and honest enough to say that they are experiencing some of the same emotions. This helps the public, stakeholders and employees see their leaders as authentic, which supports the emotional connection so essential to successfully navigating a crisis.
Leadership implies being out in front and showing the way. During a crisis, leaders must live the vision and values they’vedefined and communicated to the people in their organizationso that others have an example of effective behavior to follow. Theyneed to set an example, take responsibility, and be visible. Leaders should train themselves to project an image of calm and confidence regardless ofthe “hockey game” going on in their stomachs. If the leader appears to be hurried, harried, or visually shaken and distraught, the impact of the crisis can actually be amplified for employees and others.
Leaders should take responsibility. Harry S. Truman became the 33rd President of the United States, assuming office after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. His most pressing order of business was ending the global crisis that was World War II. A sign on his desk declared the guiding principle of his leadership: “The buck stops here.” He understood that responsibility for decisions made by him and his administration was his to personally acknowledge and accept, as a condition for holding office.
This speaks to leadership accountability, the importance of which goes well beyond honorable conduct. In a crisis, even if the leader did nothing to cause the crisis, he or she must accept responsibility to resolve the situation.
If the leader was responsible for the crisis, he or she should be morally courageous enough to stand up and publicly accept that responsibility. Effective leaders don’t wait for events to resolve themselves. They take charge of the situation, get the needed information, and control and manage events. Failure to do so is abdicating one’s leadership responsibility.
Leaders should be visible. It is especially important in times of crisis that those in leadership positions be present, visible, and available. Visibility takes on a special importance during a crisis. It sends the message that the leader is engaged, concerned, and actively taking part in the resolution of the problem. It lets people throughout the organization see how its values and vision are enacted in times of duress.
When people see their leader out in front during a crisis— particularly the top leader—they understand that everyone in the organization is in the situation together and that things will be fine. A leader who remains invisible raises questions, increases anxiety, and causes the crisis recovery period to last longer.
Leaders should take time for reflection that rejuvenates relationships. With all of this focus on relationships and leading others, it’s important to remember that leaders also need to reflect and keep tabs on their own emotional reactions during a crisis. They should be aware of their emotions, their reactions to stress, and how others perceive them in is about unlearning management and relearning being human.
Leaders need to identify one spokesperson. If the crisis could potentially impact the health or well-being of customers, the general public or employees, it may attract media attention. To ensure your organization or institution speaks with one voice and delivers a clear consistent message, a spokesperson (if the leader doesn’t fill this role) must be identified as well as prepared to answer media questions and participate in interviews. Having many people serve as spokespersons with differing personalities and opinions causes chaos and confusion.
Leaders should structure collective insight. Time is the most critical resource during a crisis. Lives, fortunes and fate can be lost if it is not maximized. Reactive thinking occurs after an incident and indicates time passed. Proactive thinking occurs before an incident and anticipates time to come. In other words, in a crisis, if you’re not ahead, you’re already behind. Anticipate and plan for worst case scenarios, potential events, and unseen probabilities. This will require insight —the discernment of underlying truths and realities, in order to enable foresight —a precautionary view of the future.
Insight is informed by experience and perspective. Leaders should enlist people with different knowledge, concerns and viewpoints. Pool their collective scope, develop protocols for what will and could happen, and improve existing protocols to streamline execution for the most rapid response achievable.
This process was engaged by John F. Kennedy, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A year and a half earlier, he suffered the most disastrous foreign policy decision he ever made, the Bay of Pigs invasion. So when Soviet nuclear missiles were discovered 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, he tried a different approach. Seeking to avoid the groupthink that undermined his decision making during the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy ignored his military brass, who urged a military strike.
With the fate of the planet and lives of millions at stake, a wrong decision meant a nuclear holocaust. Kennedy wanted a diplomatic resolution. He implemented a four-step approach, to come to his decision:
- Step 1: Every member of the primary strategy team would function as a “skeptical generalist”, approaching the crisis holistically rather than subjectively from departmental perspectives.
- Step 2: Meetings were convened away from the White House, in informal settings. This eliminated the turf-battles and conversational impediments of official titles and ranks, and allowed for more unrestrained discourse.
- Step 3: The primary strategy team was instructed to occasionally meet without the President, to safeguard against restricting solutions to his viewpoints. Kennedy, like Lincoln, believed that diverse views, candid debate, exhaustive examination and dissent were vital to critical evaluation.
- Step 4: The primary strategy team would then divide into sub-groups that would each develop alternative solutions. The sub-groups would then reassemble and debate the attributes of each solution, and let the best plan emerge on its merits. This four-step approach still serves the presidential decision-making process. It is also taught in universities and business schools across the country, as the gold standard for executive decision making.
Leaders should expect of themselves what they ask of others. Hypocrisy is derelict duty to, and fraudulent assertion of principles. It undermines everyinstitution, every organization and every enterprise. For the leader who exhibits it, hypocrisywill likewise undermine his/her leadership, and everyone under it.Integrity is authentic adherence to, and avid application of principles. It strengthens everyinstitution, every organization and every enterprise. For the leader who demonstrates it,integrity will likewise bolster her/his leadership, and everyone under it.
This is the inherentmeaning in “Talk the talk, walk the walk.” As a leader, particularly during a crisis, you must do as you speak.Your words must have a single standard of judgment and a believability of purpose. Your decisions must address problems, without violating the rights and principles of the people executing and affected by them.
Your actions will bear direct evidence of your character, beliefs, morals and ethics and when compared and contrasted to your words and decisions, that evidence will convict you of duplicity, or commend you as worthy of being followed. The importance of this will be evidenced by the performance of all you lead. If they do not believe in you, they will not believe in your professed regard for them, or what you ask them to do. Nothing will guarantee the failure of your leadership, and of the efforts you direct, more than this. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.
Harvard professor and former CEO of Metronic says “Before asking others to sacrifice, first volunteer yourself. If there are sacrifices to bemade – and there will be – then the leaders should step up and make the greatest sacrifices themselves. Everyone is watching to see what the leaders do.”
Leaders need to exude powerful vulnerability. During crisis, leaders often feel overwhelmed with responsibility – as though they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people’s health, livelihoods depend on the leaders; shareholders or investors count on leaders to honor their commitments to drive value, and customers rely on leaders to continue to deliver the product or service that accounts for their current success. Therefore, when leaders face a pending crisis, they may tend to take the whole burden on themselves.
Their default position might be to retire to their office and ruminate about the problem or to exaggerate toughness and confidence. Admitting limitations has counterintuitive benefits. When leaders level with people, they are more likely to forgive their mistakes, and they will make stronger connections with them that ultimately increase your ability to persuade and influence.
This, in turn, will strengthen leadership. No one expects a leader to have all the answers – just a willingness to discover them. They want a leader to show your vulnerability because they know they are experiencing it. When leaders open themselves up and shares their limitations, they connect on a level that doesn’t exist in non-crisis times. Further, when leaders expose their vulnerability it invites people to admit theirs. When this level of candor exists, cohesion and renewed respect often will follow.
Leaders should give people things to do . Action helps with fear, outrage, panic and even denial. If you have things to do, you can tolerate more fear. In an emergency, some actions communicated are directed at victims, persons exposed, or persons who have the potential to be exposed. However, those who do not need to take immediate action will be engaging in “vicarious rehearsal” regarding those recommendations and may need to substitute action of their own to ensure that they do not prematurely act on recommendations not meant for them.
In an emergency, simple actions will give people back a sense of control and will help to keep them motivated to stay tuned to what is happening (versus denial, where they refuse to acknowledge the possible danger to themselves and others) and prepare them to take action when directed to do so. When giving people something to do, give them a choice of actions matched to their level of concern. Give a range of responses: a minimum response, a maximum response and something in-between.
Leaders should use sensitive syntax in their communication: put the good news in subordinate clauses. The previous section does not mean that you shouldn’t give people reassuring information. Of course you should! But do not emphasize it. Especially do not emphasize that it is “reassuring,” or you will trigger the other side of your audience’s ambivalence. One way to avoid this is to use “sensitive syntax.” Sensitive syntax means putting the good news in subordinate clauses, with the more alarming information in the main clause.
Here is an example of using sensitive syntax: “Even though we have not seen a new anthrax case in X days (subordinate clause with good news), It is too soon to say we are out of the woods” (main clause with cautioning news). The main clause is how seriously you are taking the situation or how aggressively you are responding to every false alarm.
Leaders should (and encourage others to) focus on what is within their control, and not what’s outside of it. Excessive anxiety and fear is generated with fear and uncertainty about the future, which may not be predictable. Focusing your attention on listing and thinking about what is within your control and taking action on those things will lessen the anxiety and fear.
Bill George, author of “True North” and former CEO of Medtronic provided guidance for leading in crisis in his article in the Wall Street Journal. He provided seven lessons for leaders a few of which are relevant in our current situation:
- Leaders must face reality. Reality starts with the person in charge. Leaders need to look themselves in the mirror and recognize their role in creating the problems. If the problem is not of their creation, they must communicate the reality honestly to all stakeholders.
- No matter how bad things are, they will get worse. Faced with bad news, many leaders cannot believe that things could really be so grim. Consequently, they try to convince the bearers of bad news that things aren’t so bad, and swift action can make problems go away. This causes leaders to undershoot the mark in terms of corrective actions. As a consequence, they wind up taking a series of steps, none of which is powerful enough to correct the downward spiral. It is far better for leaders to anticipate the worst and get out in front of it. If they restructure their cost base for the worst case, they can get their organization healthy for the turnaround when it comes and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.
Allan Schoenberg, writing in his article, “Do Crisis Plans Matter? A New Perspective on Leading During a Crisis,” in Clinical Leadership & Management Review, argues that leaders should “Start thinking of crisis management as relationship/human behavior management —both internal and external. Reviewing current studies and theories on leadership, communicators should apply these to crisis management and strive to become more integrated into management. Does your organization exhibit signs of old command and control leadership? If so, how can you change that to reflect existing in a changing, dynamic world?”
In summary, we know a great deal about how to lead in a crisis if we can learn from the past and be creative about how to deal with the present. If history tells us anything, we should be prepared that crises can change things permanently. It’s very difficult to return back to previous states and conditions, because so many things have changed. We can’t live the past over again.
The good news about this is that it creates opportunities for leaders to think new thoughts, collaboratively create new systems, technology structures and networks to not only deal with similar crises in the future, but institute entirely new beneficial things for us.