The Center for Creative Leadership’s recent forum on crisis leadership, and the subsequent report, Stepping into the Void, represents our nation’s best effort at composing the dynamics of leaders faced with crisis. Beyond the descriptive value of CCL’s work, the report also points readers to performance imperatives for the next crisis they may face—a valuable tool to help organize leader and leadership development to better prepare people for the crises they will inevitably face. I was humbled and moved by the forum, its participants, its goals, and its achievements.
For those who have some experience in matters of life and death, the report will truly resonate. Its finest quality is that ably reflects the blended knowledge of experts, successful, authentic crisis leaders, and leader developers into a marvelously creative product with an evidentiary basis. I find myself rereading the report, envisioning my next serious challenge, and playing through goals, strategies, and outcomes. As I reflect on the value of our collective effort in the forum, it’s clear that every leader bears some responsibility to prepare for crisis, rather than merely react to the next disaster.
Use the report to prepare now. Crises are assumed to be “over the horizon,” but it is all too easy (and wrong) to think and speak about crisis only in reactive terms. For example, in our report, the phrases “during a crisis” or “in a crisis” are used six, and sixteen times, respectively. By contrast, the phrases “before a crisis” or “prior to a crisis” only occurred once (though the phrase “prior to” was quite common in our biographical sketches). The structure of our language and the contents of the report reveal that assumptions about crisis leadership tend to be reactive, rather than proactive. We all hope that our next crisis remains at least a day away.
Yet there is much evidence that what one accomplishes as a leader BEFORE the crisis makes a tremendous difference. That’s the first step in putting a leader above, rather than inside, a crisis. Don’t allow your own emerging framework for viewing crisis leadership to be limited to actions inside the crisis, in the grip of the disaster. The best among crisis leaders don’t have to change when the crisis occurs. For example, Lieutenant General Russ Honore received national acclaim when he arrived in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and immediately took charge in a colorful, aggressive fashion—and those who know him recognize his actions as typically characteristic of the native Louisianan. Katrina was simply one more important success in the lifetime of life and death challenges undertaken by the experienced Army leader.
People like Lieutenant General Honore, who lead in circumstances where others believe that the leader actions will influence their physical well-being or survival—defined as in extremis leaders—lead every day with the assumption that at some point, the stakes will be life or death. Police officers, firefighters, military leaders, and extreme sport coaches hold the in extremis orientation habitually. Such an orientation is a window to the positive daily leadership habits that best prepare people to lead in the inevitable crisis.
One does not have to be a public service professional to lead every day as if lives depend on it. One of the best examples of in extremis leadership overcoming adversity is the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) response to the devastation of Katrina. The Gulf Coast disaster is perhaps too often considered an exemplar of failed organizational response. The HCA successfully coalesced its organization, developed a plan, and evacuated patients from Tulane Hospital as the disaster swirled around them.
HCA comprises 170 hospitals, mostly in the Southeast and Southwest United States and in London and Geneva. It manages approximately 5 percent of all hospital care in the United States, including deliveries, surgeries, and transplants. More than $23 billion of revenues flow through it each year. The CEO is Jack D. Bovender, a humble, soft-spoken Nashvillian. He dissected HCA’s recognition and response to Katrina at an October 2006 meeting of leader developers at the Center of Ethical Leadership (COLE Center) at Duke University, where he sits as a member of the board of visitors. Bovender explained that an entity of the size and complexity of HCA was well prepared in terms of planning for hurricanes. Its hospitals had successfully weathered many such storms, sometimes with near-catastrophic damage, but their plans and preparations led to rapid recovery of routine operations. The problem with Katrina (as we all know) was the extensive flooding and attendant lack of communication and transportation infrastructure. The aftermath of Katrina presented Bovender and the leader teams at HCA and at Tulane hospital with, in Bovender’s words, “a whole new paradigm.”
From the leadership perspective, the paradigm shift had to occur throughout HCA, it had to be flexible in order to be effective, and the senior leadership had to make it happen with their own people, with minimal dependency on outsiders. Jack said two things that reflect leadership when lives are on the line: “One of my favorite quotes is from von Moltke [a nineteenth-century Prussian military strategist]: ‘Strategy changes when the first shot is fired.’” Jack’s second comment, which underscores the value of leading daily as if lives depend on it, was, “You can’t change yourself in thirty minutes into something you haven’t been for thirty years.”
Bovender’s comment illustrates the futility of treating crises as isolated incidents, and approaching crisis leadership as a unique “emergency” style instead of an approach to leading on a daily basis. Bovender characterized the unification of the HCA team under the incredibly adverse conditions of Katrina as the result of four elements seen daily in the operations of HCA. Consider how these elements can be built into your own daily operating style:
1. Commitment. The HCA approach during Katrina built on a characteristic value that had been grown in the business over many years: hospitals’ first commitment was to their patients. With that as the guiding value, the right decisions were made at the personal, team, and organizational levels.
2. Empowerment. The HCA response was, in Bovender’s words, “incredibly decentralized and empowered locally.” People understood that they could take action because, he said, it was “easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.” Importantly, this extended to actions or communications that may have exposed HCA to lawsuits, especially when it came to telling the truth about problems with the evacuation. Bovender helped set the tone of truthfulness and candor: “I’d rather lose the lawsuit and come out with people respecting me or the institution.” It’s easy to see why HCA found itself on the moral high ground.
3. Responsibility. Bovender and the rest of the leadership at HCA did not wait for governmental assistance or depend on it beyond what was absolutely necessary. They did coordinate with state government for the use of some helicopters and for the use of the Alexandria and New Orleans airports. They not only marshaled an air fleet of more than twenty-four helicopters from various sources, but they heavily augmented the airlift with ground convoys of ambulances and buses, including armed security, some of it rather hastily composed.
4. Communication. Bovender and the leader team communicated as best they could throughout the operation. Because e-mail remained one of the most reliable means of communication, they used the “HCA Everybody List” on a daily basis to keep everyone tied together, communicating, and informed.
Whether you consider yourself a leader now, or whether you will emerge as a leader in the midst of crisis, there is incredible power in the acknowledgement that our world is volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and sometimes dangerous. If you can discipline yourself to lead every day with that in mind, you and the people around you will be better prepared for your next critical challenge. And as you step into that void, the value of the CCL forum and this incredible report will be realized.