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, 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.