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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Retired General Russel Honoré Talks about Gustav and Katrina

CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed Retired General Honoré as he headed from his Georgia home to New Orleans. General Honoré, who was responsible for heading military relief effort during Hurricane Katrina, is also an alumnus of CCL’s Leadership at the Peak program.

General Honoré spoke to Cooper about cites (Miami, Houston, and Biloxi) that are at risk of becoming the next “New Orleans”; shared three rules for family preparedness before hurricane; and talked of the work that still needs to be done in NOLA. Click here to read full interview.

Leaders, Communities Brace for Gustav’s Landfall

To many along the United States’ Gulf Coast, it must seem like déjà vu. Almost three years ago to the day, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coastlines of Louisiana and Mississippi, resulting in the loss of more than 1,800 lives and $80 billion in property damage. Now, Hurricane Gustav is set to make landfall near New Orleans tomorrow afternoon. And thousands of that city’s residents are evacuating, heeding a mandatory order to do so.

We all hope, of course, that Gustav’s impact will be less severe than expected and that preparedness efforts will reflect lessons learned painfully during and after Katrina. That remains to be seen, but it’s certain that people will critically compare crisis leadership efforts during the next few days with actions taken three years ago.

One theory of leadership, complexity leadership theory, seems particularly appropriate for discussing leadership during crises. The theory builds upon the idea that organizations are complex adaptive systems in which change is continual and organizational members continuously affect structures within the system through interaction and the process of sensemaking. This is an overly simplistic explanation, but the most relevant point here is that leaders within this theoretical framework act as enablers rather than controllers, and they manage words more so than they manage people.

With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how leaders respond to Hurricane Gustav—how they enable or hinder preparation and response efforts, and how they communicate with their many constituents. In the meantime, we hope for the best while bracing for the worst.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Leading Toward Preparedness

According to a recent report by New York University’s Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response and The Public Entity Risk Institute, crisis preparedness remains low within many organizations throughout the United States.

As the report mentions, future crises will most likely only increase in frequency and complexity. Technological advances, globalization, and continually greater inter-organizational dependence result in a society where what affects one organization will most likely affect others. So when disaster strikes, leaders will need to become ever cognizant of how rapidly changing environments may affect them. For example, hurricanes could disrupt a corporation’s supply chain, which in turn could adversely affect its workers and customers.

It is surprising—and alarming—that organizations continue to operate without enough attention to how their leaders should address crises. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that some organizations may treat crisis leadership as a segmented organizational function, for example, making it the sole responsibility of the business continuity planning department. But history and research are beginning to show that crisis preparation may be most effective when addressed in a holistic, systemic, and ongoing fashion—not when it is relegated to another set of checklists and conference-room meetings.

Access the full report here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Resilient Organizations Know How to Improvise

Why do some organizations bounce back after hard times and others don’t? According to a recent Harvard Business Review article written by Diane Coutu, there are three important characteristics that underpin resiliency in an individual or organization. Resilient people and organizations have a clear view of reality, find meaning in hardship, and they know how to improvise.

“Inventive tinkerers, resilient organizations use whatever’s handy to overcome hardship. They improvise solutions without obvious tools and imagine possibilities where others are confounded,” writes Diane Coutu.

Coutu uses the example of how USP was able to deliver packages to residents just one day after Hurricane Andrew devastated southeastern Florida in 1992. UPS’s ability to effectively respond under extraordinary circumstance can be attributed to their commitment to empower employees to improvise and do whatever it takes to deliver packages on time.

The ability to improvise was one of the resounding themes during the discussion at the Crisis Leadership Forum in 2007.

"The day after the storm, we realized that 98 percent of our plans weren't any good," said Joe Spraggins, director of emergency management for Harrison County, Mississippi, whose first official day on the job was the day Katrina hit. It was as if "an atomic bomb hit the Gulf of Mexico," said Spraggins. "This was something that had to be dealt with in a different manner."

Leaders and experts at the forum agreed that crisis response, regardless of size or scope, requires both planning and improvising. Planning and preparation helps enable rapid coordinated action; at the same time plans are always insufficient. A plan is a starting point, but every situation will involve something unexpected. Logic and imagination cannot factor in every contingency. People need the capacity to read and understand a situation and improvise their approach as the reality unfolds. To learn more about improvising when plans fail, click here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Megacommunity: Harnessing the Tri-Sector to Prepare and Respond

As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Likewise, it just might take a “megacommunity” to effectively manage crises in today’s ever-evolving, increasingly complex and uncertain world. In their book, Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together, four executives from the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton—Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano, and Christopher Kelly—propose that the best way to address macro threats is through engaging organizations and leaders in three sectors: government, business, and the public/non-profit realm.

A megacommunity, as the authors describe it, is a community of organizations, not of individuals. Specifically, a megacommunity is “a public sphere in which organizations from three sectors—business, government, and civil society—deliberately join together around compelling issues of mutual importance, following a set of practices and principles that make it easier for them to achieve results without sacrificing their individual goals” (p.53). The book’s main theme is that continually advancing globalization and technology have created a world in which communities are highly interdependent. When disaster strikes, therefore, the most successful responses draw upon numerous organizations for resources and leadership. A working relationship among these otherwise disparate entities is imperative. Hence, the megacommunity is the vehicle through which organizations can unite toward common goals without forcing them to abandon their own identities and goals.

For example, the authors discuss how leaders in Florida, after suffering Hurricane Andrew’s devastating impact, recognized that no single organization could effectively meet the demands of hurricane preparedness and subsequent response. Afterward, officials in Florida engaged a wide range of non-profit groups and businesses in its contingency planning and response preparedness. This new approach was largely successful in responding to subsequent hurricanes, and the authors contrast it sharply with the widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

Megacommunities goes on to describe how the megacommunity idea requires a shift in thinking to include building relationships across organizational boundaries while engaging vital stakeholders, sensing common goals among organizations, and initiating a megacommunity after analyzing conditions internal and external to one’s organization. The megacommunity concept has numerous implications for leaders who want to successfully prepare for crises. Leadership in this sense includes a wide range of abilities and actions such as recognizing common values among organizations in other sectors, building the requisite relationships and reputation capital to engage leaders in other organizations, and continually assessing who might be important stakeholders.

As a whole, Megacommunities is more about steps organizations can take to better address large problems facing themselves and their communities than it is about what organizations should actually do during crises. That being said, however, the notion of the megacommunity is compelling because it stresses the importance of leaders looking beyond their own organizations for mutually beneficial support in addressing large-scale challenges. Each of the three sectors that megacommunities should engage—business, government, and civil society—have unique abilities and perspectives necessary to find the best solutions. And as technology continues to advance, so will global interdependence. What affects one organization, may very well affect many others—making the megacommunity approach viable and necessary.

Megacommunities proposes that we think about our organizations in a more holistic manner, considering them within the broader context of a society with common threats. What types of risks face your organization and organizations in other sectors? A few possibilities come to mind: expansion into new markets, financial crises, natural disasters, pandemic outbreaks, terrorist attacks, cultural conflicts, and information-technology advancement, to name a few.

No longer are our villages, regions, organizations, and countries sustainable without a mindful approach toward mitigating the risks we all face. Building inter-organizational ties within a megacommunity, or simply recognizing and strengthening latent megacommunities around us, appears to be an important step. And at the very least, leaders seeking to successfully manage crises should take heed of the megacommunity concept and consider its implications.

Reference: Gerencser, M., Van Lee, R., Napolitano, F., & Kelly, C. 2008. Megacommunities: How leaders of government, business and non-profits can tackle today’s global challenges together. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.