About the Crisis Leadership Forum

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.

To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.

To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Leadership Failures During Hurricane Katrina

As the author James Joyce once said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” And although the leadership failures during and after hurricanes Katrina and Rita pummeled the United States’ Gulf Coast resulted in widespread tragedy, it’s useful to examine what went wrong and to learn what those events can tell us about leadership. In fact, failing to glean lessons from disasters may result in future tragedies that we could have otherwise mitigated. As another author, George Santayana, once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In their recent research article titled “Making Matters Worse: An Anatomy of Leadership Failures in Managing Catastrophic Events,” scholars Naim Kapucu and Montgomery Van Wart analyzed the catastrophic events in the city of New Orleans during and after hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall in 2005. Kapucu, an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida, and Van Wart, a professor and chair of the Department of Public Administration at California State University, San Bernardino, propose that 12 specific leadership competencies are particularly important in the management of catastrophic disasters and provide evidence of how those competencies were lacking during the Katrina emergency response.

Specifically, the authors argue that leadership during catastrophes especially requires leaders to demonstrate the competencies of decisiveness, flexibility, informing, problem solving, managing change and creativity, planning and organizing personnel, motivating, managing and building teams, scanning the environment, strategic planning, networking and partnering, and decision making. Using these competencies as a conceptual framework, Kapucu and Van Wart then discuss how their analysis of government reports and national media coverage demonstrates that in many ways the emergency-management efforts related to hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is a “case study of what not to do” (p. 719, emphasis added).

Kapucu and Van Wart suggest that the leadership failures regarding hurricane Katrina in New Orleans fall into five categories:
  1. Failures in prevention and planning. Relevant leadership competencies that were lacking include environmental scanning (defined as “gathering and critically evaluating data related to external trends, opportunities, and threats on an on-going and relatively informal basis” p. 718), strategic planning, networking, and personnel planning. Leaders failed to appropriately demonstrate these capabilities both prior to the hurricane reaching land and during the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

  2. Failure to adapt and expand capacity. Relevant leadership competencies that were lacking include environmental scanning, strategic planning, team building, flexibility, and decision making. In particular, leaders failed to shift their plans as dictated by the unfolding disaster and took a more reactive than proactive approach toward requesting assistance.

  3. Failure to restore communications rapidly. Relevant leadership competencies that were lacking include strategic planning, problem solving, creativity, and providing motivation. With these competencies, the authors suggest that community and government leaders could have restored communications more rapidly.

  4. Inflexible decision making. Relevant leadership competences that were lacking, as implied by the category title, include flexibility and decision making. For example, the authors discuss how the decision to use the New Orleans Superdome as an emergency shelter was flawed because it “encouraged nonevacuation, was unprepared for the 20,000 who were housed there, and was unequipped with the supplies necessary” (p.732). Thus, this decision failed in terms of both preparation and implementation.

  5. Weak coordination and lack of goodwill. Relevant leadership competencies that were lacking include networking and partnering, team building, and decision making. Specifically, the authors mention a number of organizations that failed to adequately coordinate their emergency-response efforts. Furthermore, although some local communities responded admirably during the disaster, others did not, and in so doing stymied evacuation and appropriate disaster relief.

Therefore, Kapucu and Van Wart’s research suggests that leaders during disasters must enact specific competencies in addition to those required by leaders in stable operating conditions. Proactive contingency planning is vital, but leaders must be prepared to adjust their plans as necessary when unfolding events challenge the assumptions upon which the plans were built. Finally, the massive level of inter-organizational coordination that facilitates effective emergency response necessitates direct attention to networking and partnering before disaster strikes.

Kapucu and Van Wart’s article appeared in the journal Administration & Society. The full reference is as follows:

Kapucu, N., & Van Wart, M. (2008). Making matters worse: An anatomy of leadership failures in managing catastrophic events. Administration & Society, 40, 711-740.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Bottom-Up Response in the Mumbai Attacks

I’ve just returned from India. The country is still grappling with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that claimed nearly 200 lives. In India, where mass casualties are not unusual – in train accidents, stampedes, or floods – the shock revolves around the inability of India’s institutions to protect even its most elite populations at an iconic hotel in its central commercial center.

There were many failures that enabled the scale of the attacks. Quite telling was that the elite commando force took 10 hours to arrive at the scene of the attacks, ferried the last miles to the scene of the attacks on borrowed public buses. Clearly the Indian government was completely unprepared for this kind of attack.

Also telling was the role that ordinary people played in rescues. The heroes were hotel waitstaff and cooks who put their lives at risk to hide hundreds of guests instead of bailing out through the back door with their own lives – many staff perished (watch a segment on Charlie Rose). A tea vendor at the train station that was attacked saved dozens of lives by repeatedly rushing in to get paralyzed commuters out. The one AK-47 toting terrorist who was captured alive was taken down by constables wielding bamboo sticks.

In the national soul searching that has followed the attacks there is much blame being levied against the government for the lack of intelligence, the lack of preparation, and the tardy response. Nevertheless there is appreciation too that guarding this vast country from terrorism is going to take the vigilance of all people. It is a lesson India can learn from Israel where ordinary citizens foil the majority of attacks by taking swift action. In the Mumbai attacks the 10 terrorists came ashore at a fishing village and walked past the dock official who passively watched them go despite all the signals that something was amiss.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Can you plan for uncertainty?

These are uncertain times – recession, terrorism, war, climate change.... All this uncertainty upsets the planners among us (people who like to know what’s going to happen and when). When I was reflecting on my childbirth experience and preparation for it, I compiled this advice for “planning the un-plannable”. I'd love to see your comments if any of this resonates with you.

1. Know all the possibilities and parameters.
2. Learn how others have dealt with the challenges.
3. Know yourself.
4. Know your support system.
5. Fill in gaps in your support system.
6. Prepare for stress (for example, by being healthy).
7. Think through scenarios and decisions ahead of time; postpone actual decision 'til the necessary time.
8. Find small ways to feel confident and in control.
9. Be kind to yourself.
10. Sleep.

Sarah L. Glover

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Highest Order of Crisis Preparedness

CCL President John Ryan's October 28, 2008 column on BusinessWeek.com offers insights for leaders in dealing with a crisis. The column draws on the Crisis Leadership Forum and makes an important point about the counterproductive tendency to centralize control in a crisis:

"When leaders feel suddenly overwhelmed in crisis, they often try to do everything themselves. Strong individual leadership is of course imperative during a crisis. But it is not sufficient. A collective response is essential. Leaders trying to fix a crisis with a top-down approach many times find they're not close enough to the ground to know what's really happening. And even if they are, there's still no way for them to absorb and make sense of the massive volumes of information flying at them. "

In considering how to effectively marshall collective leadership capacity, there is much to be learned from the US Coast Guard. The USCG's dual strategy of encouraging "on-the-scene initiative" from frontline responders coupled with "commander's intent" from above enables an effective blend of top and bottom leadership. The USCG's ability to align across levels and commands is a product of its continual investment in building individual skills and organizational culture. This focus on building leadership capacity may well be the highest order of crisis preparedness.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Coming to Grips with the Panic of ’08

David Hurst, author of Crisis & Renewal and management speaker, consultant and writer, wrote this essay on the financial crisis and the cycle of creative destruction.

Creative Destruction:
Coming to Grips with the Panic of ’08
By David Hurst

Sir Isaac Newton knew a thing or two about up and down, but not even he could understand the gyrations of stock markets. “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people,” remarked the famous English physicist, after he reportedly lost twenty thousand pounds (over $5 million in present day value) in the collapse of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. His puzzlement must be shared by many contemporary experts, especially the “rocket scientists” who developed the arcane financial instruments and valuation techniques that have contributed so heavily to the collapse of Wall Street in 2008. Indeed, one of the more complex such instruments, Credit Default Swaps, have been described as the “dark matter of the financial universe.”

After the March meltdown of Bear, Stearns, one of America’s most admired companies, the markets seemed to stabilize for a bit and the scientists might have retained their equanimity. But then, after 158 years of successful operation, Lehman Brothers evaporated over a weekend and that icon of American business, Merrill Lynch, a.k.a. the thundering herd, nearly went off the precipice, disappearing instead into the arms of the Bank of America. AIG, the world’s largest insurance company, needed an $85 Billion bailout. Staunch Republicans have supported government intervention to which they were unalterably opposed and markets around the world have swooned. While stunned economists and mathematicians wrangle about what went wrong, perhaps it would be helpful to reframe our understanding of what is happening. In addition to science, it’s useful to use some history; it also helps to enhance economics with some ecology.


While many talk of a global recession, some are even using the “D” word as they recall events from 1929. Historians have suggested, however, that analogies to 1929 are misguided and that the current financial turmoil is more similar to that of the Bankers’ Panic of 1907. In that year the stock market fell nearly 50% as the economy went into recession and there were numerous runs on banks and trust companies. By strange coincidence, that crisis had also begun in March of that year, with the collapse of Union Pacific stock, which was widely used as collateral for raising finance. The stock market survived that, more or less, but it was done in by the collapse of The Knickerbocker Trust, the third largest in America, in October 1907. It turned out that the trust had been funding speculation in the copper market, which had slumped a few months earlier. A fierce contraction in liquidity followed, with depositors trying to withdraw their holdings from banks across the country. The United States did not have a central bank at that time, so there was no lender of the last resort to throw out a lifeline. The economy was saved by the efforts of J.P. Morgan and his banking associates, who acted together as a financial backstop. Charles Barney, the President of Knickerbocker, shot himself on November 14, 1907. However the trust company opened again after a few weeks of closure and paid out all its depositors plus interest. The panic was over.

References to economic crises in history remind us that, although they are infrequent, financial panics are by no means rare. Professor Charles Kindleberger in his classic, Manias, Panics, and Crises, has identified nearly forty of them since the beginning of the 17th Century i.e. about one every ten years, although eighteen of them were in the 19th Century. So we have been here before. What makes the Panic of 2008 so frightening is its global scope and the suddenness with which it came upon us, contrary to all expert opinion. Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan observed in 2005 that “increasingly complex financial instruments have contributed to the development of a far more flexible, efficient, and hence resilient financial system than the one that existed just a quarter-century ago.” These remarks now seem destined to go down with economist Irving Fisher’s observation on the eve of the market crash of 1929 that "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Famous, last words indeed.


None of the dynamics of the Panic of ’08 are surprising to anyone who looks at the world through an ecological rather than an economic lens. For this is the way nature works. Long slow processes of growth are followed by swift bouts of destruction that prepare the environment for renewal. Take a lodge-pole pine forest for example, like those that flourish in the Rockies. Lodge-pole pines are self-pruners. As they grow, they drop their lower branches on the ground, building up highly flammable debris. After forty years or so they get attacked by bugs like the mountain pine beetle and the weaker trees die, creating standing firewood. When lightning then strikes, fires devour the dead trees and tinder-dry underbrush in brief but violent infernos. Efforts to put them out are in vain – the best that fire-fighters can do is to try to control the boundaries and hope for assistance from nature in the form of rain. In the aftermath of fire, however, the scorched ground is ready for renewal. The fire removes the large trees that had hogged resources and prevented any variety from growing in their shade. It recycles their resources, supplying nutrients in their ashes that can nourish small scale organisms. The fallen trees supply innumerable refuges for armies of insects to assist with the recycling. The lodge-pole pines themselves have special heat-resistant cones that burst only when the temperature rises above 140º F and release their seeds into the warm ash. Within a year the ecology is bursting with renewal, as the weeds and seedlings and migrant animals and birds, the entrepreneurs of the natural world, flourish in the open patches.

Such natural systems work well, provided they are left alone. But we know that human intervention often makes the cycles more violent. Until recently forest managers made forest fires much more destructive by mistakenly suppressing natural fire in national parks like Yellowstone. The strategy works for a while, often confirming the wisdom of the strategists. But after a while so much fuel builds up that nothing can stop it from burning. Indeed, the effective exploitation of nature to make it more “efficient” mandates that we turn systems with variety into mono-cultures. The forests that supply the paper on which we blow our noses and clean our counters are such mono-cultures: all the trees are evenly spaced and are of the same age and same type. Without variety or fire-breaks, they are vulnerable to being wiped out by sudden catastrophes, ranging from wind and fire to disease and insect attack. The pan-caking floors of the Twin Towers after the attacks of 9/11 and the toxic NINA (no income, no assets) mortgages have this dynamic in common. Once one went, they all went. In crises economists call the process “financial contagion”. From an ecological perspective Alan Greenspan was quite wrong. Resilience does not follow from efficiency: it requires variety, which is the opposite of efficiency. And the restoration of resilience to a complex system often demands destruction first.

After the Panic of 1907 the Federal Reserve System was formed to act as lender of last resort. I am glad we have them this time around, as they try to avoid the mistakes they made in 1929. More generally, meaningful social, political and institutional change happens only in the aftermath of crisis. To a considerable and unacknowledged extent society and its component organizations advance strategically by accident, economically by windfall and politically by disaster. Armies are reformed only after defeats. Safety regulations are usually introduced after accidents. Certainly a comprehensive overhaul of the financial system is needed to ensure that the unregulated growth of mono-cultures is checked and monitored. We will have to avoid, however, the excesses of regulatory zeal such as the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, enacted in the aftermath of the Enron collapse. In his prescient book, A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation, investment expert Richard Bookstaber describes how, at times like these, markets can suddenly change their character. They flip from a well-understood game like probability-based roulette to a high-stakes one like psychology-based poker, offering huge rewards for those brave enough to seize the opportunities and disaster for others. He suggests that, among other things, we need to reduce the complexity of financial instruments, even if this means slowing down the rate of financial innovation. If the risks of complex derivatives are not understood, he argues, their risk cannot be mitigated.

Socially and intellectually these are humbling times, when many who thought they understood the system have found that they did not. The world’s politicians have not been helpful. President George W. Bush, to quote The New York Times, “had nothing to offer but fear itself.” Apart from dealing with the economy to restore confidence, our leaders need to get back to our ideas about values and community: the soil in which economies are nurtured. In our proclamation of the triumphs of markets we have forgotten their origins in and continued dependence upon human relationships and mutual trust. Trust, like the lubricant in an engine, is noticed only when it is gone and the motor has seized. Many of us live such fragmented lives and some say our values of hard work, thrift and support for each other have been eroded by decades of easy money, consumerism and a cult of selfish individualism. Changing that will not be easy. Rulers throughout the ages have known that nothing is more destructive of social order than a fall in the standard of living from a higher level, real or imagined, to a lower one. It will help immensely if we know that everyone is in it together and that the pain is being shared. Disasters, whether physical of financial, often have the effect of bringing the human community back together again in a common fate and a shared survival.

In the meantime it couldn’t hurt to pray for rain.

David Hurst is the author of Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1995/2002). He is a speaker, consultant and writer on management. He is a also Contributing Editor to Strategy+Business and his writing has appeared in the Harvard Business Review, The Financial Times and other leading business publications.

Friday, October 3, 2008

From Hurricane Winds to Vanishing Credit: The Many Faces of Crisis

Fear and pain. Ad hoc rescue. Panicked days. Collapse. Turmoil. Meltdown. We typically reserve these types of phrases for natural disasters and other emergencies that pose an immediate threat to life, limb, and property. Recently, however, news outlets such as the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and Reuters have used these words and other similar language to describe what pundits around the world are simply calling the “financial crisis.” Indeed, during the past few weeks, the world has turned its attention to the United States’ financial markets, which are in the midst of a rapidly changing landscape of tightening credit, bankruptcy, and volatile share prices.

So what do we really mean by the word “crisis?” Given the diversity of circumstances that we may call crises, it appears that some definition of crisis is necessary if we are to understand crisis leadership. Scholars differ on some of the nuances of what a crisis is and what it is not, but most agree that crises are unexpected, high-impact events characterized by high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. They are situations in which we question the stability of what we previously thought stable and the assumptions upon which we previously acted with confidence.

Given this rough definition of a crisis, one way we may think of crisis leadership is as a process of positive influence toward safety, security, and stability. Metaphorically, crisis leadership encompasses the means through which we emerge from the fog of chaos into the clarity of familiar surroundings.

With these concepts in mind, the status of the United States’ financial system is certainly one of crisis. Most experts didn’t expect the sub-prime mortgage market to collapse, leading to a worldwide tightening of credit and failure of stalwart organizations such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. And it’s even more unlikely that anyone could have predicted that today the federal government would enact a $700-billion plan intended to bolster the nation’s financial system. In terms of crisis leadership, who are some of the key players? Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson? Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke? Thousands of American constituents voicing their opinions?

If anything, the financial crisis is an example of how crisis leadership affects many vital aspects of life we often take for granted, be it the ability of a levee to hold, the rapid arrival of first responders, or the stability of business, labor, and our financial future. Further inquiry into successful crisis leadership, then, is not just an interesting matter of scholarly pursuit—it’s a crucial matter of survival.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Crisis Leadership Podcasts from CCL on iTunes

Four podcasts based on learning from the Crisis Leadership Forum are now available on iTunes:

These are part of a Center for Creative Leadership series on iTunes that includes dozens of downloads on topics such as ethics, strategic leadership, and conflict management.

iTunes also features some 150 documentaries, podcasts, audiobooks, radio shows, and songs related to Hurricane Katrina.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Jindal’s Emergency Response

As previously discussed, leaders’ communication during crises may make a significant difference in how they enable or hinder emergency response. According to a Sept. 7 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal responded effectively to the threat of Hurricane Gustav by focusing on continually measuring preparation progress while reducing barriers to response efforts. He did this, at least in part, through communication with the public and other constituents.

The true test of emergency readiness in Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast, however, may come in the weeks and months ahead. The official Atlantic hurricane season lasts until Nov. 30, leaving the potential for future evacuations and many other demands upon leaders. Furthermore, what impact does the fact that Gustav was less severe than anticipated have on future evacuation efforts and responses?

One possibility may be that people will be less likely to act with as much of a sense of urgency during future crises. Many heeded leaders’ warnings regarding Gustav, but will that followership continue? Interestingly, the Times-Picayune reported today that Gov. Jindal does not foresee an evacuation order regarding incoming Hurricane Ike.

This highlights an important dilemma for leaders considering to order evacuations and carry out other disaster preparations. Leaders want to prepare their communities, but they also need to maintain their followers’ trust that they will only sound the alarm when it is really needed. Only then will people follow and respond when disaster strikes. This, too, emphasizes the delicate yet vital nature of communication in crisis leadership.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Retired General Russel Honoré Talks about Gustav and Katrina

CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed Retired General Honoré as he headed from his Georgia home to New Orleans. General Honoré, who was responsible for heading military relief effort during Hurricane Katrina, is also an alumnus of CCL’s Leadership at the Peak program.

General Honoré spoke to Cooper about cites (Miami, Houston, and Biloxi) that are at risk of becoming the next “New Orleans”; shared three rules for family preparedness before hurricane; and talked of the work that still needs to be done in NOLA. Click here to read full interview.

Leaders, Communities Brace for Gustav’s Landfall

To many along the United States’ Gulf Coast, it must seem like déjà vu. Almost three years ago to the day, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coastlines of Louisiana and Mississippi, resulting in the loss of more than 1,800 lives and $80 billion in property damage. Now, Hurricane Gustav is set to make landfall near New Orleans tomorrow afternoon. And thousands of that city’s residents are evacuating, heeding a mandatory order to do so.

We all hope, of course, that Gustav’s impact will be less severe than expected and that preparedness efforts will reflect lessons learned painfully during and after Katrina. That remains to be seen, but it’s certain that people will critically compare crisis leadership efforts during the next few days with actions taken three years ago.

One theory of leadership, complexity leadership theory, seems particularly appropriate for discussing leadership during crises. The theory builds upon the idea that organizations are complex adaptive systems in which change is continual and organizational members continuously affect structures within the system through interaction and the process of sensemaking. This is an overly simplistic explanation, but the most relevant point here is that leaders within this theoretical framework act as enablers rather than controllers, and they manage words more so than they manage people.

With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how leaders respond to Hurricane Gustav—how they enable or hinder preparation and response efforts, and how they communicate with their many constituents. In the meantime, we hope for the best while bracing for the worst.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Leading Toward Preparedness

According to a recent report by New York University’s Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response and The Public Entity Risk Institute, crisis preparedness remains low within many organizations throughout the United States.

As the report mentions, future crises will most likely only increase in frequency and complexity. Technological advances, globalization, and continually greater inter-organizational dependence result in a society where what affects one organization will most likely affect others. So when disaster strikes, leaders will need to become ever cognizant of how rapidly changing environments may affect them. For example, hurricanes could disrupt a corporation’s supply chain, which in turn could adversely affect its workers and customers.

It is surprising—and alarming—that organizations continue to operate without enough attention to how their leaders should address crises. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that some organizations may treat crisis leadership as a segmented organizational function, for example, making it the sole responsibility of the business continuity planning department. But history and research are beginning to show that crisis preparation may be most effective when addressed in a holistic, systemic, and ongoing fashion—not when it is relegated to another set of checklists and conference-room meetings.

Access the full report here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Resilient Organizations Know How to Improvise

Why do some organizations bounce back after hard times and others don’t? According to a recent Harvard Business Review article written by Diane Coutu, there are three important characteristics that underpin resiliency in an individual or organization. Resilient people and organizations have a clear view of reality, find meaning in hardship, and they know how to improvise.

“Inventive tinkerers, resilient organizations use whatever’s handy to overcome hardship. They improvise solutions without obvious tools and imagine possibilities where others are confounded,” writes Diane Coutu.

Coutu uses the example of how USP was able to deliver packages to residents just one day after Hurricane Andrew devastated southeastern Florida in 1992. UPS’s ability to effectively respond under extraordinary circumstance can be attributed to their commitment to empower employees to improvise and do whatever it takes to deliver packages on time.

The ability to improvise was one of the resounding themes during the discussion at the Crisis Leadership Forum in 2007.

"The day after the storm, we realized that 98 percent of our plans weren't any good," said Joe Spraggins, director of emergency management for Harrison County, Mississippi, whose first official day on the job was the day Katrina hit. It was as if "an atomic bomb hit the Gulf of Mexico," said Spraggins. "This was something that had to be dealt with in a different manner."

Leaders and experts at the forum agreed that crisis response, regardless of size or scope, requires both planning and improvising. Planning and preparation helps enable rapid coordinated action; at the same time plans are always insufficient. A plan is a starting point, but every situation will involve something unexpected. Logic and imagination cannot factor in every contingency. People need the capacity to read and understand a situation and improvise their approach as the reality unfolds. To learn more about improvising when plans fail, click here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Megacommunity: Harnessing the Tri-Sector to Prepare and Respond

As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Likewise, it just might take a “megacommunity” to effectively manage crises in today’s ever-evolving, increasingly complex and uncertain world. In their book, Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together, four executives from the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton—Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano, and Christopher Kelly—propose that the best way to address macro threats is through engaging organizations and leaders in three sectors: government, business, and the public/non-profit realm.

A megacommunity, as the authors describe it, is a community of organizations, not of individuals. Specifically, a megacommunity is “a public sphere in which organizations from three sectors—business, government, and civil society—deliberately join together around compelling issues of mutual importance, following a set of practices and principles that make it easier for them to achieve results without sacrificing their individual goals” (p.53). The book’s main theme is that continually advancing globalization and technology have created a world in which communities are highly interdependent. When disaster strikes, therefore, the most successful responses draw upon numerous organizations for resources and leadership. A working relationship among these otherwise disparate entities is imperative. Hence, the megacommunity is the vehicle through which organizations can unite toward common goals without forcing them to abandon their own identities and goals.

For example, the authors discuss how leaders in Florida, after suffering Hurricane Andrew’s devastating impact, recognized that no single organization could effectively meet the demands of hurricane preparedness and subsequent response. Afterward, officials in Florida engaged a wide range of non-profit groups and businesses in its contingency planning and response preparedness. This new approach was largely successful in responding to subsequent hurricanes, and the authors contrast it sharply with the widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

Megacommunities goes on to describe how the megacommunity idea requires a shift in thinking to include building relationships across organizational boundaries while engaging vital stakeholders, sensing common goals among organizations, and initiating a megacommunity after analyzing conditions internal and external to one’s organization. The megacommunity concept has numerous implications for leaders who want to successfully prepare for crises. Leadership in this sense includes a wide range of abilities and actions such as recognizing common values among organizations in other sectors, building the requisite relationships and reputation capital to engage leaders in other organizations, and continually assessing who might be important stakeholders.

As a whole, Megacommunities is more about steps organizations can take to better address large problems facing themselves and their communities than it is about what organizations should actually do during crises. That being said, however, the notion of the megacommunity is compelling because it stresses the importance of leaders looking beyond their own organizations for mutually beneficial support in addressing large-scale challenges. Each of the three sectors that megacommunities should engage—business, government, and civil society—have unique abilities and perspectives necessary to find the best solutions. And as technology continues to advance, so will global interdependence. What affects one organization, may very well affect many others—making the megacommunity approach viable and necessary.

Megacommunities proposes that we think about our organizations in a more holistic manner, considering them within the broader context of a society with common threats. What types of risks face your organization and organizations in other sectors? A few possibilities come to mind: expansion into new markets, financial crises, natural disasters, pandemic outbreaks, terrorist attacks, cultural conflicts, and information-technology advancement, to name a few.

No longer are our villages, regions, organizations, and countries sustainable without a mindful approach toward mitigating the risks we all face. Building inter-organizational ties within a megacommunity, or simply recognizing and strengthening latent megacommunities around us, appears to be an important step. And at the very least, leaders seeking to successfully manage crises should take heed of the megacommunity concept and consider its implications.

Reference: Gerencser, M., Van Lee, R., Napolitano, F., & Kelly, C. 2008. Megacommunities: How leaders of government, business and non-profits can tackle today’s global challenges together. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Lessons Learned from the Fire

Just over a month after a massive lightening storm ignited more than 2,000 fires throughout northern California fire officials recently announced that 98% of the fires have been contained. Still fire officials warned that fire danger remains high throughout the state.

David Balwin, an adjunct at the San Diego campus of the Center for Creative Leadership, knows first hand what some of the residents of northern California have been facing this past month as fires threatened their homes. He and his wife were among the residents endangered by the 2007 Southern California wild fires that destroyed 1,500 homes and over 500,000 acres.

“As my wife and I hunkered down in our home with windows shut tight, we tuned in to the television for ongoing live footage of houses being burned to the ground. But, every few hours the mayor of San Diego would have a communication press conference and facilitated key leaders from the police, fire, national forest service, helicopter pilots, etc. This communication proved essential especially for my wife who has only been in the San Diego area for a couple years,” said Baldwin.

Fortunately their home survived the fires and one of the key lessons David and his wife learned from their experience was the importance of relying on others is times of crisis.

The Baldwin’s insights echoes much of what the General Honoré who was lauded for shaking New Orleans out of a daze after hurricane Katrina struck observed during the height of the Katrina crisis--- the need to have a “culture of preparedness” where people have a natural civic response to helping others in times of crisis.

According to Honoré, the greatest and largely unlearned lesson of Katrina, Honoré was that despite investments and improvements in federal and state disaster response, civic response remained weak.

"I'm sure you and your wife have a plan to meet at Uncle Joe's house, but does your plan include asking Mrs. Smith next door if she needs a ride?" he says. "We saw a lot of Mrs. Smiths in New Orleans," said Honoré.

Another lesson the Baldwins learned from their experience was to have a plan in place in the event of future disasters. “The crisis made us reflect on what are the key personal items we need to have prepared and ready to evacuate with in our hands. Additionally, we purchased a fire safe as our perspective changed from living in a sense of stability to having an evacuation plan in place,” stated Baldwin.

The need to think ahead is articulated in the book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why” and reviewed in The New York Times. The Time's piece states:

"There are ways to prepare for more common threats like fires, floods and other emergencies. Take part in evacuation drills at work and at home. Make a habit of changing batteries in your smoke detector on a schedule, like the first of the month or every time you change the nearest light bulb. And get to know your neighbors, who can be a valuable resource in emergencies."

The Times and the author offer a "disaster IQ" quiz online:

How Prepared Are You if Disaster Strikes?

Stories from Katrina from StoryCorps

The magnitude of massive disasters makes it possible to lose sight of the thousands of individual tragedies that form a heartbreaking quilt of loss and enduring grief.

The StoryCorps oral history project has captured some 35,000 life stories from everyday people since 2003, including many from Katrina. These accounts, often deeply personal remembrances told to a loved one, are archived at the Library of Congress and occasionally featured on National Public Radio.

The stories about Hurricane Katrina are moving. In one story, Douglas deSilvey talks about losing his family -- wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and father-in-law -- in the flood. In another, a news reporter talks about the painful scenes he encountered in the wake of Katrina and shares the burden of having to walk away from a mother who pleaded for help for her two-year old child.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Managing the Unexpected: Implications for Crisis Leadership

Effective leaders should focus on success, make critical decisions, and simplify complex problems, right? Not according to organizational scholars Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe in their book, Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. In fact, leadership as described above might be precisely the wrong approach in preparing and guiding organizations prior to, during, and after crises.

By definition, crises are unexpected events. And the degree to which organizations successfully deal with the unexpected varies. So to better understand how some organizations continually deal with high levels of risk and uncertainty, Weick and Sutcliffe studied occupations in which catastrophes are rare despite widespread occupational hazards. These “high-reliability organizations” include nuclear power plants, naval aircraft carriers, firefighting units, and emergency medical units. These seemingly disparate organizations, Weick and Sutcliffe argue, have much to teach us about reducing errors at work, bolstering occupational safety, and managing crises.

Although Managing the Unexpected is not necessarily a book about leadership—for example, the authors seldom mention the words “leader” or “leadership”—its practical implications for any organization seeking the ability to rapidly adjust within a high-stakes, continually changing environment are numerous. From a leadership perspective, the principles Weick and Sutcliffe claim high-reliability organizations espouse provide direct insight into the critical role of leaders during crises. This brief review of Managing the Unexpected examines those principles and a few ways in which they may relate to crisis leadership.

High-reliability organizations (HROs), according to Weick and Sutcliffe, effectively manage small crises on a regular basis because they cling to five guiding standards. These “HRO principles” are as follows:

1. Preoccupation with failure
2. Reluctance to simplify
3. Sensitivity to operations
4. Commitment to resilience
5. Deference to expertise

Together, these principles describe an organizational culture in which people know what types of errors are unacceptable, understand the complexity of organizational issues, listen to people at the “front line,” fight to bounce back from mistakes, and rely on subject-matter experts when appropriate.

Leaders who wish to succeed in crises, then, should perhaps direct their efforts toward the intentional implementation of these principles into their organization’s culture. Implementing a “preoccupation with failure” could include actions such as talking about what types of failures the organization should regard as detrimental in terms of safety or the organization’s performance. It could include expecting, supporting, and rewarding employee behavior such as reporting errors and mistakes, as these “weak signals,” or subtle cues, could be signs of impending disaster. Weaving a “reluctance to simplify” value into the organization’s culture would most likely involve leaders pushing for more information about causes of small failures, as these small failures could signal bigger organizational problems.

Applying “sensitivity to operations” within organizations assumes that leaders will listen to workers closest to hazards, as those workers are most likely the first ones to notice if aspects of their work are amiss. For example, engine technicians would most likely be the first to notice if a piece of machinery sounded differently or vibrated more than usual. Leaders who are sensitive to those in operations prepare themselves for crises because they will be more likely to quickly learn about potential problems and react accordingly; furthermore, by supporting their front-line employees they empower them to act in the best interest of the organization.

The final two HRO principles, “commitment to resilience” and “deference to expertise,” apply more directly to how leaders should act during crises than the other three principles. A “commitment to resilience” implies that leaders should build into their organizational culture ways of continuing operations under extreme circumstances. This could mean building redundancy into the organization’s structure through cross-training. Because crises involve massive amounts of information exchanged within rapidly changing circumstances, leaders should encourage widespread freedom of speech within their organizations to facilitate information exchange and situational awareness. Finally, “deference to expertise” refers to the notion that during crises, leadership is most effective when shared, such that those with the most amount of expert knowledge have the authority and resources to act.

Weick and Sutcliffe expand upon these ideas in far greater detail in Managing the Unexpected. The concepts addressed here, however, will perhaps spark further discussion about crisis leadership. Given their somewhat counter-intuitive nature, the HRO principles challenge many notions of traditional, hierarchical leadership while promoting a more systems type of approach to how leaders can succeed in crises.

Reference: Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an age of uncertainty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lessons Learned: FEMA Response to Midwest Floods

Nearly three years after their highly criticized response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster FEMA is receiving positive feedback on their relief efforts for the victims of the Midwest Floods. Democratic senators in Missouri and Illinois are giving favorable reviews of FEMA’s early response to the crisis along with other government officials, disaster response personnel and citizens.

The highly-charged public criticism of FEMA during and after Katrina provided an impetus for FEMA leaders to scrutinize their response and apply lessons learned to future crises. A USA Today article indicates that FEMA has learned from Katrina. Glenn Cannon, FEMA assistant administrator for disaster operations states:

"The lessons we learned from Katrina we've taken very seriously. We've changed the way we do business. We don't wait to react."

As we heard at the Crisis Leadership Forum on Hurricane Katrina, there is a need for greater decentralization of relief efforts. This was articulated by Colonel Tom Kolditz at the Forum who stated “Disasters push the operational focus [down to the grassroots level]. It is the same in military operations—the faster the tempo and the higher the danger, the more decentralization is necessary.”

This shift occurred in FEMA’s response to the floods as noted by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill:

"I think they've made a world of improvement both in terms of their preparedness and in terms of their attitude. My sense is they are no longer thinking they can deliver disaster relief from a cubicle in Virginia and are fully engaged on the ground."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

New Leadership Emerges From the Rubble

If there is a silver lining in the tremendous tragedy of last month’s earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan, China it is not only the unprecedented openness of the Chinese government to outside aid but the upsurge of volunteerism and philanthropy within the country's borders. Now, less than a month since the earthquake, soldiers are beginning to control sensitive areas and local media restrictions are increasing, however, the extraordinary response by China’s citizens and NGOs will not likely be suspended any time soon. This surge of volunteerism and philanthropy which is considered atypical for China is not uncharacteristic in times of great disaster.

Much like the Hurricane Katrina crisis in 2005, the earthquake in China overwhelmed the capacity of formal systems and structures, opening the door for emergent leaders to step into the void, and play critical and improvised roles in rescue and rebuilding efforts. Grassroots leaders stepped up and plunge into the fray to assist others.

This unusual grassroots spirit of volunteerism and philanthropy can be summed up by Li Tong, a 28-year-old nightclub manager in Beijing who organized a series of benefit concerts for the quake relief.

"I think the reason (for the widespread response) was simple. The earthquake was just too big and devastating for anyone to ignore. So we all felt we had to get involved.”

"I'm not sure about the long-term impact. For now, there's this sense of joint participation -- and that could continue. Before, I think, people felt more isolated and selfish and they thought the same about strangers. But the relief work has broken through that. So I hope we don't go back to how it was."

Just as individuals affected most by Hurricane Katrina refer to life after the storm as the “new normal”, the people of the Republic of China’s “new normal” may be a rise in grassroots leadership, volunteerism and philanthropy.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned

Partnership for Public Service has created a website devoted to improving government performance by sharing information about Hurricane Katrina and highlighting Katrina’s lessons to drive forward-looking solutions. It features events, research, news summaries, related legislation and related links.

One report, The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned, offers that Katrina is an opportunity to learn for the future:

"Katrina creates an opportunity—indeed an imperative—for a national dialogue about true national preparedness, especially as it pertains to catastrophic events. We are not as prepared as we need to be at all levels within the country: Federal, State, local, and individual. Hurricane Katrina obligates us to re-examine how we are organized and resourced to address the full range of catastrophic events—both natural and man-made. The storm and its aftermath provide us with the mandate to design and build such a system."

... We must expect more catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina—and possibly even worse. In fact, we will have compounded the tragedy if we fail to learn the lessons—good and bad—it has taught us and strengthen our system of preparedness and response. We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but there is much we can do to learn from them and to be better prepared for the future. This is our duty."

At the Crisis Leadership Forum Donna Dinkin noted that the word crisis in Chinese is composed of two separate symbols: one that symbolizes danger, and the other, opportunity. A crisis she observed is an opportunity to learn for the next time. Dinkin also warned that learning must transcend the diagnostics of a particular crisis. “How do we help organizations learn from one type of crisis event to make them more prepared? Not more prepared for the ‘same’ type of crisis—but a totally different kind of crisis?”

More from Donna Dinkin in a previous post to this blog: http://crisisleadership.blogspot.com/2008/01/reflections-on-crisis-leadership-forum.html

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The frailty of Crisis Leadership… or better “Why doesn’t somebody do something”

By Pete Hammett

Pete Hammett was one of the discussants in the Crisis Leadership Forum. He's the author of Unbalanced Influence.

“The practice of leadership is not the same as the exercise of power” -- James Macgregor Burns

“History proves out time and again that a leader mistaken in their thinking and ill-conceived in their decisions will have little trouble finding those ready to agree and wholeheartedly willing to follow.” -- Unknown

The mission of Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is to promote the understanding, practice and development of leadership for the betterment of society worldwide. And yet, on August 29, 2005, when the Katrina crisis unfolded, those of us at CCL, like many others around the world, struggled to find a meaningful way to show our support. It wasn’t simply the images we saw or the stories we heard that pulled at our hearts. We had friends, business partners and customers who were directly impacted by the storm. Then, in October 2007, when the fires raged in Southern California, events hit much closer to home. The Center has family in San Diego - a campus of nearly 50 people plus adjunct faculty and coaches. And then the long, dry summer of ’07 brought many of us in the Southeastern states the real possibility that sever drought would require some communities to truck in water.

As we observe crisis like Katrina and experience firsthand events like the California fires, we come face to face with the promise and shortcomings of leadership during times of stress, uncertainty and personal tragedy. In this we’ve come to believe that in light of what we’ve come to characterized as crisis leadership, certainly there is expertise CCL could lend and knowledge we might gain by committing our time and energy to this topic. While few events will match the scope and scale of the devastation wrought by Katrina, there are principles and practices we could learn about the nature of a crisis and the kind of leadership needed. So then, if leadership potential can be defined as the ability to learn from lessons-of-experience, the leadership lessons embedded in experiences from Katrina or the California fires or the next crisis on the horizon, offer perhaps the most fertile learning opportunity imaginable.

Our first step in developing a body-of-knowledge in crisis leadership occurred in March 2007 with a two-day forum drawing on lessons from leaders actually engaged in the rescue and recovery efforts from Katrina. In planning for the forum we were sensitive to what had already become an endless series of bureaucratic exercises designed to either assess blame and / or defend positions for the inadequate response to Katrina crisis. To ensure the Crisis Leadership Forum avoided this pitfall we designed the session to be a “conversation” conducted in a safe space, rather than a public forum for an audience. From this we were able to focus on what we could learn from what went right, from what went wrong and what we would carry forward for “the next time”.

As I read through the forum report (Stepping into the Void) my mind raced back to ‘lessons-of-experience’ I heard from those who participated in this exchange. With the benefit of hindsight from Katrina as well as reflection on responding to subsequent crisis events – a few thoughts continue to race through my mind – most haunting are the echoes of “Why doesn’t somebody do something”. I share this with you below.

The Frailty of Crisis Leadership – Self-reliance & Disconnected Communities

The framework of the Crisis Leadership research suggests that in many regards, leadership in times of crisis is not that different from every day leadership, in that we set direction, define strategic objectives, prioritize activities, provide support and foster creativity and innovative. However, during times of crisis, when traditional paradigms fall to the wayside, when a group, community, city or nation is faced with responding to life & death - questions of sustainability or survival greatly influence the manner and method people chose to lead as well as chose to follow.

When the order to evacuate New Orleans came, we saw a great number of people stay in city even with the threat of Katrina looming. Arguments have been made that many stayed because they didn’t believe the storm would be that bad (storms had come and gone in the past, and this one would be the same). But we now know that some residents stayed in New Orleans because they had no option for leaving. While they lived in communities that appeared to be tightly connected – beneath the surface those bonds were very thin and many residents were left to fend for themselves. We observed a similar situation during the ’07 California fires as some homeowners defied orders to leave, even when they saw the danger approaching and had the means to escape.

In these examples are perhaps the greatest barriers to Crisis Leadership, the frailty if you would to leading during times of crisis…our natural instinct for self-reliance coupled with the very thin bonds of connection communities. Perhaps the predisposition to be self-reliant is an American idiosyncrasy. It is part of our nature as Americans to look adversity in the eye and stare it down. But this self-reliance may be the very thing that creates a barrier to building tight-knit bonds within our communities. We may know our neighbor’s name, perhaps what they do and their children. But how tightly connected are our communities?

A post-Katrina analysis looked to compare the impact in New Orleans to that of South Florida in the wake of hurricane Andrew. A Florida resident who survived Andrew offered this word of advice to Katrina victims; “The only thing the residents of New Orleans can honestly count on is themselves. The government isn’t going the help and the city and state won’t be much good. And your neighbors have their own problems. So you’re on your own”.

Leadership is useless unless a leader has those who will follow. During times of crisis, real crisis, a significant barrier to leadership may be followers who lean on self-reliance and communities that are disconnected.

We don’t need another hero

Along with the stories of destruction and lost the media inevitability finds inspiring accounts of compassion, courage and heroics. Sometimes the story involves a single individual – other times it’s an entire community. Yet in these stories there is always a common theme. First, the longer the story is played in the press; the difficult it is to separate myth from fact. This isn’t surprising because in times of distress we need inspiration and hope and over time the stories of heroics take on a life of their own.

However in hindsight we learn a valuable lesson for the role of heroics during times of crisis. While heroics may save the day, heroics will not sustain the future. Heroics are helpful for an isolated event but cannot scale to address a larger community. We can’t replicate heroics nor can we embed heroic events into our crisis plans. Heroics make for great headlines, and we should acknowledge and praise these events. But we seldom offer the same accolades to impactful leadership during a crisis.

The best of times, the worst of times

A lesson-of-experience we heard in the Crisis Leadership Forum is that during a crisis your strengths shine bright and your weakness shine brighter. One organization made this point as they shared how the strength and weakness in their organizational decision making played out in their response to Katrina.

In this organization the mode-of-operation was to enable its leaders to make decisions quickly. In fact, leaders were more likely to be criticized for taking too long to make a decision than for making a poor decision. A by-product of this culture was that decisions often produced less than efficient results. However, in an aggressive growth market a less-than-perfect decision could be make, results analyzed, inefficiencies determine, and fine-tuning applied – generally before the competition analyzed and make their initial decision.

The value and drawbacks in the organization’s rapid yet inefficient decision making culture became crystal clear during the height of Katrina. When several workers became stranded in the city when the levees broke the only evacuation option was a helicopter. With key leaders scattered across several cites and communications difficult, a decision was made and an air evaluation engaged. The decision was quick, but inefficient as not one, but three helicopters brought placed into service because three separate leaders make the same decision.

What truck am I in?

One image that has burned in my mind from the Crisis Leadership forum is the image of two trucks.

When Katrina hit some people put whatever ‘extra’ things they had in a truck – drove to an impacted area and said to the survivors standing around “this is for you – I had this sitting in my closet – I hope it helps”. They pushed their ‘stuff’ out of the truck and drove home. They didn’t ask ‘Where do you need this’ or better yet, ‘Where can I help’. This was often referred to as “drive-bys”.

But there were others, who likewise gathered what they had available, put it in a truck and drove to an impacted area. But rather than dumping and running home – they stayed. Some for a few days, others are still there. They found out where the need was the greatest and went there. They gave what they had and when the need was more than what was available they reached out to their networks to get more. But most of all – they gave of themselves, spent real time with those they were serving and in return learned and grew more than they could have imagined.

When I reflect on this story I ask myself…what truck am I in? To be certain there are two types of ‘helpers’ in a crisis:
  1. Drive-bys…people who put ‘stuff’ in their truck, pull up to people hurting, kick the stuff out of the back, and take off
  2. Stay-bys…people who put their heart and soul in a truck, pull up to people hurting and stay until the need is met
We need both!!! We’ll remember one.

Why doesn’t somebody do something?

With the TV playing the scenes from the Superdome in New Orleans a single thought constantly echoed in room – “why doesn’t somebody do something?” In truth a lot of people were doing something. However the enormity of the crisis overwhelmed every response system imagined. Ironic that the very definition of a crisis is that we are overwhelmed and the systems (people, plans, capacity) to respond are inadequate.

Another irony is that we don’t think about what we could do to help in a crisis until the crisis is upon us. Our friends from the Red Cross offered some great advice for those of who would want to help during a crisis. In as much as you are able, don’t become another soul that needs help. This goes back to where we began – the issue of self-sufficiency. Ignoring danger signs and warnings because you feel you can ‘tough-it-out’ is the dark side of self-sufficiency. However, using your available resources and making plans before a crisis is a helpful approach to self-sufficiency. And it may keep you from being someone who needs help and allow you to be someone who offers help.

A good place to start is the Red Cross’ site on disaster planning.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Premortems and Crisis Planning

We’ve heard it said that hindsight is 20/20 but "prospective hindsight" can provide much clarity when planning for a crisis.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article Performing a Project Premortem Gary Klein, chief scientist of Klein Associates discusses the benefits of using prospective hindsight in a business setting during the early stages of project planning. Klein describes a method he devised called a “premortem” designed to help project teams identify risks before a project has a chance to go off track.

Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight -- imagining that an event has already occurred -- increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.

Although many project teams engage in pre-launch risk analysis, the premortem's prospective hindsight approach offers benefits that other methods don't. It not only helps teams identify potential problems early on, but serves to engage team member’s perspectives and thoughts that might otherwise go unsaid. In describing weaknesses that no one else has mentioned, team members feel valued for their intelligence and experience, and others learn from them. The exercise also sensitizes the team to pick up early signs of trouble once the project gets under way.

This type of premortem exercise can be easily applied when planning for crises of any magnitude. As repeatedly reflected in the findings from the Crisis Leadership Forum, the more one can anticipate all that can go wrong in a crisis situation the better able they are to plan for even the most unexpected disaster.

"The magnitude of natural disasters is much, much large than any of us can imagine, so planning needs to go much farther in our thinking about potential scenarios,” said Leigh Allen, CCL faculty member.

This focus on thinking about the worst was echoed by Linda Watts, division manager for Mississippi Power Company. In looking back at what could be done to better prepare for the Katrina crisis, she offered, “I would ensure plans were truly ‘worst case”—such as planning for zero communication capability. I would help our community think through ‘who all needs to be at the table’ as we’re planning for and dealing with a crisis.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Notes from a Survivor of the Andean Aircrash

Pedro Algorta is one of the 16 survivors of the 1972 Uruguayan flight that crashed in the Andes with 45 people on board. The story of the survivors -- who held out for more than two months on the snowy mountains without food, water, or medical supplies -- is chronicled in both book and film (see Alive). Pedro, on reading the Stepping into the Void report, found the leadership lessons we drew from Katrina to parallel what they experienced in the Andean disaster. He writes about the connections in two posts on his blog Survivor Walk excerpted below:

“I just read a “White Paper” from the Center for Creative Leadership addressing the type of leadership that emerges in a crisis situation like the one produced by the hurricane Katrina. And it is amazing how close their findings are to the leadership situations we experienced during the days we spent in the Andes.

… We were peers, we didn’t know what to do, we were not prepared for such an ordeal, we were let by ourselves and we had just to figure out how to survive and to get out of the mountains. And I don’t want to imply that some of us didn´t play a more significant role than others in the Andes, but everyone contributed according to its possibilities, and we all mattered. Even those who were ill or injured played a significant role; just taking care of themselves was important for the group.

… Our survival on the Andes is a case of “Collective Leadership”. There was no one person that accomplished all the leadership tasks and we didn’t have “a Leader”. On the contrary, we were a group of peers figuring out how to get out from the mountains, and everyone contributed according to his capabilities at that time. In some cases, one of us would “step into the void” and make significant contributions; sometimes it was participating in a discussion and offering a new point of view, or giving an inspiring insight, or doing some generous or heroic act, or making an insuperable funny remark or improving the way we did things in order to save energies or provide relief to the injured and ill. The leadership tasks were performed in a collective way.

… As the Katrina analyst said, in crisis situations, systems collapse and there is no one individual person or organization that can cope with the enormous amount of work that performing the leadership task entails. In crisis situations, collective leadership does emerge, and we are clearly an example of it.”

Pedro's blog offers a set of lessons from his workshops that touch on the essence of crisis leadership:
  • "We were ordinary people. Anyone, under similar circumstances would have done the same, and eventually survived. And once you have overcome your mountain, you have another one to climb. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary objectives.

  • We couldn’t have survived individually. Survival was team work, which needed each one of us to be OK. You need to work for the team and for you.

  • There were no absolute leaders. Different leaders emerged according to different circumstances. You have to find your authentic leadership style. Not all leaders are alike. One thing is to be a hero, another is to lead."
The commonalities in what we learned from these two very different disasters – the massive and very public Katrina disaster involving hundreds of thousands of people in a multi-state region and the ordeal of small band of airplane survivors trapped on an isolated mountain -- is striking. Weaving together the hard lessons from these distinct tragedies provides a deeper understanding into crisis leadership. Our thanks to Pedro for bringing these connections to light.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Preventing School Tragedies Begins with Prepared Staff and Students

On a recent NPR’s Bryant Park Project show school safety consultant Ken Trump spoke about the critical role front line school personnel play in the preparing for and preventing possible catastrophes such as the Virginia Tech shooting last spring. Trump said staff members such as teachers, secretaries, bus drivers and custodians are the frontline people who can make a difference between life and death when a crisis unfold in a school.

The Crisis Leadership Forum spotlighted the significant role emergent leaders play in a disaster situations, when leadership systems and structures fail: “At the (Crisis Leadership) forum, we heard a lot of stories about people taking initiative and enacting leadership without authority. Formal constructs had been dismantled. Authority structures, infrastructure had gone away. Regular people who depended on those things found themselves without access to that, but leadership still had to happen,” said CCL Senior Fellow and forum participant Ellen Van Velsor, PhD.

Because incidents such as the Virginia Tech shooting unfold in a matter of minutes, staff members need to be prepared to operate well beyond the bounds of their official titles or roles. A staff and student body that is ready to lead can prevent possible catastrophes and save lives when a crisis occurs.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Leadership Lessons from the 1996 Mt. Everest Tragedy and other Disasters

HBS Working Knowledge, a forum for innovation in business practice, has recently pulled together a collection of archival articles that address key leadership challenges in times of disaster. In Sharpening Your Skills: Disaster! the authors of four case studies present lessons for today’s leaders from important historical events such as 1996 Mt. Everest tragedy and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trek across Antarctica.

The case studies address questions such as:

  • How does disaster change leadership goals?
  • What signals should leaders send during a crisis?
  • How should organizations learn from failure?
  • Can leaders anticipate disaster?

These are important questions. As was reflected in the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina in the Stepping into the Void report, crises, whether isolated on a mountain top or spread over miles of land, requires a response that pushes both individual and collective leadership capacities. Extraordinary circumstances require equally extraordinary responses from both formal and emergent leaders who are willing and able to step into the void when physical and human systems collapse.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Organizing chaos: Crisis management in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

The organizational challenges faced by the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New Orleans during and after the Hurricane Katrina crisis are chronicled and discussed in the recently published abstract, Organizing chaos: Crisis management in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In this case study authors Tracey Rizzuto and Laura Maloney provide practical and theoretical suggestions for how organizations and organizational psychologists can learn from the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe.

In the abstract the authors provide five important learning to help organizations prepare for future crises:

  1. Plan beyond organizational boundaries. Part of an organization’s response plan needs to take into account the impact outside influences will have on implementing the plan. “Proactive planning should strive for maximal self-sufficiency while limiting dependence on external entities for vital services.”

  2. Develop and exercise crisis contingencies. When forming internal crisis management teams it is important to establish a structure where the labor is divided and responsibilities are aligned with the daily operational structure. Plans should be exercised and evaluated periodically to stimulate feedback and improve learning.

  3. Embed leadership throughout the organization. Embracing a concept of shared leadership rather than top-down leadership may be more beneficial in a crisis. “Reliance on a formal leader for direction, motivation, and action could slow an organization’s ability to respond.”

  4. Invest in employee-employer commitment. Trust is a key component in facilitating communication, collaboration and decision making. “Building and strengthening relational bonds among employees can enhance communication during times of change and can foster commitment and social support that makes employees more resilient to crisis.”

  5. Build a culture that can readily adapt to change. Developing an internal culture that embraces change as an opportunity rather than a threat will enhance the employees’ ability to remain flexible and respond effectively in times of crises.

Many of these lessons relate closely to what we learned from the Crisis Leadership forum. Near the conclusion of the forum, participants attempted to distill the cascade of conversations into a series of key insights about crisis leadership. The following five lessons topped the list:

  1. Forge relationships.
  2. Develop flexibility.
  3. Encourage courage.
  4. Empower people at the grassroots.
  5. Engender inclusive leadership.

The abstract, published in the February edition of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, can be purchased through the American Psychological Association.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Before a Clear and Present Danger

The catchphrase “clear and present danger” is a call to arms; a rallying cry that says action is needed now. While quickly reacting to a “clear and present danger” is essential, a truer challenge is to see the danger before it becomes clear or present. Because when a crisis is clearly so it may be too late to do much to avert the danger, only to respond as best possible.

At a presentation at the Organizational Science Winter Conference in February, 2008, Lt. Col. Sean Hannah of West Point offered that in preparing for extreme events the US military looks for strong and weak signals. While the former may be thought of those that are clear, present, or imminent, spotting meaningful weak signals can best help us avert a crisis.

Monitoring weak signals, interpreting them, and building scenarios to envision and prepare for what we’d do in various contingencies is a complex art. On the March 30, 2008 edition of Meet the Press, General Michael Hayden, CIA Director, explained why the intelligence community misread the signals from Iraq and how they’re working to do better.

MR. RUSSERT: You were not at the CIA on September 11th, 2001 and the successive months after that. You were at the National Security Agency. But looking back at what the American people were told about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was there a colossal intelligence failure?

GEN. HAYDEN: Yeah, we got it wrong. All right? And although I wasn't at the CIA, I was in the room when that National Intelligence Estimate was approved by the community--it wasn't just a CIA document--and frankly, Tim, I voted yes. It was my belief that what we were saying in that document was correct.

MR. RUSSERT: Why did you get it wrong?

GEN. HAYDEN: Lots of reasons. This, this has certainly been gone over by whole generation of American intelligence officers. There are a couple of narratives. I can suggest a few to you right now. Number one, maybe momentum in terms of what we knew about Iraq, what we had learned about Iraq. And even though our more recent reporting had been very thin, we still kind of carried the old conclusions forward without, frankly, holding them up enough to the light in order to see whether or not they were still valid. I, I'll tell you this. I've seen since then, I've seen estimates that we've had with high confidence turn to medium confidence. And I'd say to our... "Why is that now medium confidence? Nothing's changed." And, and the answer is, "Yes, but the information on which it has been based has aged off, and therefore we're reducing our confidence level." So we've gone to school on this.

There is much to be learned from the work of intelligence communities, the field of strategic thinking, the approaches of breakthrough innovation, and to those who manage diplomatic relations. The latter – the focus on relationship building – is key because insights must be coupled with the capability to act collectively in uncertainty. And that may be every bit a challenge as reading the signs itself.