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.

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.

Monday, March 17, 2008

What Defines a Crisis?

There is a rising concern among some Swaziland government officials that a culture of dependency is contributing to the perennial food shortage in their country. Even with much of the nation requiring food, there is concern that the country’s leaders do not view the problem as a crisis.

What defines a crisis? We tend to think of a crisis as an extreme event or a critical incident yet crises don't often emerge overnight nor fade away quickly. The seeds of a crisis can germinate for a long time -- unseen or ignored -- to explode sharply into our consciousness, and then quickly vanish from our attention. Too often, the lag in the "official" recognition of a crisis is followed by far too little time spent in response ... even as the victims endure years of difficult recovery.

At the CCL Crisis Leadership Forum in March 2007, we heard that crises tend to become chronic. Kyle Waters, senior vice president of Branch Banking at Capital One observed that one of the difficulties is that things become far less clear-cut in the messy wake of a crisis: “In a crisis, the goal or vision is mostly easily identified. But in recovery, the goals and interest get blurred.”

A leadership challenge for us is to be able to better make sense of the subtle factors that create a crisis and to enhance our capability to work through the complexity that follows. Crisis needs a new definition and a new understanding.

Friday, March 7, 2008

New Book Offers Crisis Management Tips

How managers fare during and after a high-level crisis is impacted by how well have planned for the crisis. Those who have an executable action plan in place are the ones who can react quickly, manage rumors, and respond to victims and stakeholders sincerely and adequately while keeping their organization afloat, according to crisis management expert Laurence Barton.

In his new book, Crisis Leadership Now, Barton examines:

  • The characteristics that define a true crisis
  • Proven strategies to help you understand and respond to early warning signals
  • Ways to mitigate threatening situations
  • How to effectively communicate your decisions in a timely manner to employees, shareholders, customers, and other constituencies

In the Crisis Leadership Forum Report, Alan McCurry, an executive with the American Red Cross, echoes the importance of planning for a crisis. His experiences as a commander on a Navy submarine helped him understand the interplay between established plans and revising in the face of reality.

“We trained a lot, and we trained primarily so that we could ensure that the routine became automatic,” said McCurry. “I knew every time the general alarm went off, the ventilation was shut down, that the watertight doors were shut, that the automatic breathing systems were broken out so that I, as the captain or the leader of the disaster, now could focus on what’s different in the event.”

According to McCurry, having a practiced and executable plan in place for potential crises frees leaders up during a crisis to react and respond to the unanticipated events that are present in all crisis situations. “If we can get to the point that people really do think ahead about what is going to happen—the planning—then the leaders can focus on what’s unusual or different.”

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Forgiveness in the Wake of a Crisis

In an essay on the civil conflict in Kenya, Ann Njeri writes about the need to forgive to heal the wounds:

"Can we, the ordinary citizens and the majority in Kenya, break these chains of hatred and animosity which have been passed to us from generation to generation? Can we forgive those who have hurt us instead of seeking revenge? Can we apologize to one another for being perpetrators of hatred and turning against each other?

Forgiveness remains a crucial thing for Kenya and other countries swimming in hatred. Forgiveness is so radical! It dissolves alienation, brings reconciliation, restoration and renewal. It does not change the past but it does enlarge the future. Its difficult, its challenging but its worth going for it."

The Crisis Leadership Forum report indicates that enacting forgiveness is critical in repairing the damage caused by crisis. In the Forum, Tom Tucker stated with regard to Hurricane Katrina: "I sincerely hope we have a forgiveness authority. . . . It’s going to be very interesting if the right people that did the right things are forgiven. And if they’re not, you’re going to lose a layer of leadership.”
The need to recognize wrongs and enact forgiveness is a difficult chasm that can and must be bridged. One path forward is the Truth and Reconciliation model pioneered in South Africa. It is a way of healing we need much more in our world and represents the kind of courageous leadership that bridges but doesn't paper over differences.
In a blog post on the re-emergence of social-identity conflict in our world, Chris Ernst writes of the role of leadership in bringing people together:
"The implication for leadership is this – as ancient identities work to pull groups apart, the role of leadership will increasingly be to create the context and space for these groups to come together. When group boundaries are successfully bridged, pent-up breakthroughs and innovations are unleashed. This is both the challenge and the opportunity for boundary spanning leadership."