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.

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.