I was recently doing some research for an exercise I am designing. I wanted to give my Incident Commander (the person in charge of the Incident (Crisis) Management Team) some reading material on leadership in a crisis.  While data mining on the web I found a great little article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “How a Good Leader Reacts to a Crisis.”  Perfect!  Take a look and see if you agree.

Ny Snow
The author, John Baldoni, is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He was exploring the different leadership issues that arose out of the big East Coast snowstorm earlier this year and he was contrasting the leadership styles of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. He had high praise for Bookers style in the snow disaster, not so much for Bloomberg.

His basic premise is that we like to see our elected officials in action, actively working the issue and engaged in resolving the problems.  Here is his advice:

  • Take a moment to figure out what’s going on.  Essentially take a deep breath, take charge, develop a plan of action, give clear assignments and establish the next meeting time.  This is of course most interesting – if you know the Incident Command System (ICS), this is the background for the Incident Action Plan process…one of the most important hallmarks of ICS. Baldoni  points out that this process helps to impose order on a chaotic situation.
  • Act promptly, not hurriedly. A leader must provide direction and respond to the situation in a timely fashion. But rushing will likely make people anxious. As a good leader, respond to a crisis situation by providing a leadership in a timely fashion. During the subsequent meetings with the team, discuss the direction and set specific timeframes for the implementation. To reach the best management practices you need to be quick but not hurried. Or as legendary coach John Wooden  advised, “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
  • Manage expectations. Emergencies or crisis’s take much longer to resolve then we like…everyone wants to get on with their lives. (Remember those famous words of former BP CEO Tony Hayward “I want my life back.”)  Disasters take time – a quick resolution is often not possible. It falls to the leader in charge to address the size and scope of the crisis. You don’t want to alarm people, yet do not be afraid to speak to the magnitude of the situation. Set realistic expectations early and often!
  • Exhibit control. When things are happening quickly, no one may have control of the situation, but a leader can assume control. That is, you do not control the disaster — but you can control the response. Assume the mantle of leadership and, well, lead!
  • Stay loose – be flexible.  A leader can never afford to lose composure, the leader must be able to adapt rapidly. A hallmark of a crisis is its ability to change quickly; your first response will likely not be your final response. In these situations, a leader cannot be wedded to a single strategy. She must continue to take in new information, listen carefully and consult with the frontline experts who know what’s happening.

Baldoni also shares a great observation about senior executives…one that many of us comment about often.  And that is there is a limit to what senior executives should be doing in a disaster response. A senior executive’s prime role is setting direction. If he or she is engaged too much in front line responsibility, then who is doing the visions thing??  Some executives still enjoy doing that hands-on work; they like the rush of adrenaline that comes from direct action. Too bad…that isn’t their job any more.

We are often judged and evaluated as leaders during a crisis. And those leaders who can engage directly, but still maintain their sense of perspective, are the ones that will help the organization survive.

What are your thoughts on leadership in a crisis?

Download a great podcast entitled Leading Through A Major Crisis with Adm. Thad Allen, USCG, (Harvard Business Review)