I was negotiating space for a large public health conference which was to be held in New Orleans in the fall of 2005. I was scheduled to fly into New Orleans on August 29, 2005 for a meeting with event planners the following day. This ended up being a remarkable day in the history of our country and in the world of disaster response. Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast that day at 6:10am. Needless to say my flight was cancelled, I relocated my event and I watched, with millions of Americans, a tragedy of epic proportions unfold on our television sets. My brush with what is now known as one of most devastating US natural disasters in recent history is not the reason I attended the Crisis Leadership Forum at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in March 2007. While the effects of this disaster on me highlight the trickling impact such a disaster can have, the reason I was present at this forum has more to do with my hat as scholar of crisis preparedness.
I have studied organizational crisis preparedness in local health departments and have been a contributor to preparedness efforts in both a school setting and in a public health arena for the last 15 years. I am also a member of the Guilford County Medical Reserve Corp, a new volunteer entity preparing itself to assist the local health community respond to any public health emergency. It is with these lenses that I reflect on the proceedings from the Crisis Leadership Forum. Specifically, I would like to share my opinions of the value of this event in light of the current literature on crisis preparedness and crisis leadership and share some resources that may be helpful to those wanting to increase their own skills at leading during a community wide crisis.
While not designed as a research study, the Crisis Leadership Forum hosted at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC supported some of the key points that have been made in the literature about crisis leadership. It also highlighted some areas in need of more study. I believe the discussion supported the need for improved collective action for crisis response and underscored the need for long term emotional support of all people affected by a disaster or crisis. It also highlighted the need for an integration of what is known by different academic and practitioner disciplines to help create a better understanding of how to prevent or respond to crises. Even forum participants from CCL identified links that had not previously been made between their work and the field of crisis leadership. Current work at CCL which could contribute to our current understanding of crisis leadership include the studies around complex challenges, relationships and collective leadership and stress and resiliency.
The forum also produced some questions that have received little attention in the crisis literature. First the discussion at the forum unveiled in more detail the paradoxical nature of crises. The Chinese word for crisis, wei-ji, is often used to highlight one paradox (Nathan 2000, Roux-Dufort 2000). This word is composed of two characters which apart symbolize the concepts of danger and opportunity. While threat and opportunity are often seen as two sides of the same coin, one doesn’t always take advantage of opportunities while they feel threatened. The same is true for other paradoxical aspects of crises. For example, some have difficulty planning for the worst while they are also simultaneously hoping for the best. The forum highlighted many such paradoxes of crisis leadership which deserve additional discussion and research. How does one lead in a crisis when opposing views are equally truthful and right? Research suggests that having a plan of action which outlines what to do and when to do it is helpful in a crisis. Knowing what steps to take can make the difference between life and death. On the other hand, no crisis occurs as planned and crisis leaders must be able to solve problems that no one had ever considered. Not having a plan allows direct responders to make decisions at the time they are needed. Not following a prescribed plan can make the difference between life and death. How to derive wisdom and skill from the paradoxes found in crisis is a need for future study.
The CCL Forum exposed another dimension of the crisis response system that I believe should receive more attention; that is the role of the grassroots community leader. Efforts have been made across the country to build the skills and capacity of governmental agencies and private businesses, particularly those within the medical community, to deal with crises. Other non-profit organizations and faith based institutions have also been identified as potential service providers in times of community crisis. But little is known about the role of the real "first responders"; individuals without formal responder training, who not only take action but become leaders throughout the response and recovery periods. It is because of the chaos and gaps that these people rise and it’s because of these people that gaps and chaos are minimized. Others have written about the need to manage and coordinate the work of unaffiliated volunteers who rush to the location of a disaster ( Fernandez, Barbera and vanDorp). But what has not been thoroughly researched is why and how some of these individuals become leaders in traumatic situations? And, how the formal crisis response system can support and manage these individuals as they take action? Their role as crisis leaders is important to study. Including these leaders into the crisis leadership framework and finding ways to support their work will improve our current response system.
Finally, I believe the CCL Crisis Leadership Forum has the potential of making a significant contribution to both the crisis leadership literature and to the practice of crisis preparedness by sharing the process used for dialogue and conversation at this event. Specifically I believe that the process used over the two day event was a model for both community recovery and systems learning. These are two areas of preparedness that are often neglected. The recovery process, as seen by the struggles of the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina, is long and complex. It goes well beyond the length at which Americans want to think about any one event. Unlike the immediate focus of saving lives after a tragic event, long term recovery has no single focus, nor any quick answers. Research shows that learning from a crisis is also limited. Researchers have suggested that there is a limited time period in which people and organizations will be able to optimize learning from a crisis (Roux-Dufort, Kovoor-Misra and Nathan). Factors which limit learning include lack of trust, need for normalization and fear of self awareness (Roux, 2000). The Crisis Leadership Forum provided a safe and constructive environment for constructive learning from a key event, the Katrina tragedy (Ernst and Martin, 2007). As described in the Forum report, learning and healing occurred through an unconventional conversation which included storytelling, art, and reflection. I believe this process is worth sharing with crisis scholars and community leaders.
In summary, the study of the nature and practice of crisis leadership is limited by the nature of crises. It is further hampered by some aspects of American culture such as a crisis focus and desire for immediate results. The result is a base of academic literature that has significant gaps. Deficiencies include a lack of empirical studies on crisis leadership, a lack of common terminology, a lack of integration of what is known by different disciplines, an incomplete paradigm of leadership which includes only formal individual leaders and a focus on the needs of immediate disaster/crisis response versus long term recovery and systems learning. The Crisis Leadership Form, hosted by the Center for Creative Leadership was a two day dialogue between formal and informal leaders who played a role in the crisis response and recovery efforts in the gulf coast region after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. This discussion supported the need for an integrated model for crisis leadership and highlighted the need for improved long term recovery strategies, particularly as related to emotional health for leaders. It also drew attention to the paradoxical nature of crises and the tensions that arise from these opposing but truthful realities. Finally, the dialogued modeled an effective way for communities to recover and learn from tragic or key events.
I appreciated the opportunity to be part of this discussion and look forward to future discussions on the topic of crisis leadership. For those interested in learning more about my perspective on this issue, I suggest the following readings:
Arjen Boin, Paul 't Hart (2003) Public Leadership in Times of Crisis: Mission Impossible? Public Administration Review 63 (5), 544–553.
Klann, Gene, Crisis Leadership, CCL, 2004.
Linsky, Martin and Heifetz, Ronald, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive During the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Marcus, Leonard J., Dorn, Barry C., and Henderson, Joseph M. (2005) "Meta-Leadership and National Emergency Preparedness: Strategies to Build Government Connectivity", Working Papers, Center for Public Leadership.
Mitroff, Ian I. Crisis Leadership: Planning for the Unthinkable, Wiley, 2004
Pauchant, Thierry and Mitroff, Ian, Transforming the Crisis Prone Organization, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 1992