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.

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.

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