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.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Helpful Tool or Rumor Mill 2.0: The Role of Social Media in Crisis Communication

It’s commonly assumed that when it comes to communication that more is better. But if we look closely at what that assumption means regarding how people behave within organizations and how leaders function during crises, it’s relatively easy to find evidence suggesting that more isn’t better. In fact, too much information can greatly exacerbate ambiguity within organizations and, during a crisis, incite panic among external stakeholders.

Consider the current buzz surrounding the H1N1 influenza virus, the so-called “swine flu.” It’s getting a great deal of attention—as it should—from major news outlets around the world. For example, a Google News search of the keyword H1N1 at 1:10 p.m. EST on April 30 yielded 77,337 results within the last hour alone. Combine that coverage with millions of people sharing it and discussing it on social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and you have an incredible amount of information bouncing around cyberspace. Yet the question remains: During crises, are social media and Internet-based technologies helpful tools? Or do they make the problem worse by functioning like a high-tech rumor mill?

Certainly, arguments exist for both sides. The Internet and social media make information dissemination extraordinarily fast. Tech-savvy leaders during crises could potentially use sites like Twitter to provide stakeholders with useful updates that ensure wide dissemination of information.

It’s also plausible that people may become overloaded with contradictory or erroneous information, and that specific pieces of information may unduly influence people’s perceptions. Additionally, the Internet and social media may encourage users to gauge a crisis’ severity incorrectly and take inappropriate action. For example, it’s a distinct possibility that people may hoard personal stashes of the influenza medication Tamiflu, greatly hindering public-health efforts.

So how should leaders use the Internet and social media during crises? Or should they even use these tools at all? The answers to those questions are complex, but perhaps leaders could start by recognizing the Internet and social media outlets for what they are—tools. And like any tool, they are only as good as the way in which they are used. Maybe leaders should start with understanding the important messages they need to communicate, the audiences that they need to reach, and then wisely employ the most appropriate technologies accordingly.

At the very least, it behooves leaders to understand what tools are available and strategize how best they might use them before crisis strikes—remembering, of course, that (a) more information isn’t always better and (b) anything disseminated via the Web has the propensity to spread like wildfire.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pirates, Hostages, and Ambiguity on the High Seas: Countering Complex Threats with Complex Solutions

Despite what the office-supply store Staples says in its latest advertising campaign, most of the time there is no “easy button.” This is especially true in crises, which typically involve numerous actors, interdependent action, and high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Add to those complications malicious intent by certain actors within the crisis, and you’ve got a real problem. Such is the crisis currently in progress about 300 miles off the coast of Somalia, where a band of pirates are holding hostage Richard Phillips, captain of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama.

In the still-developing story, pirates attempted to take control of the cargo ship—an attempt that ran afoul when crewmembers resisted. Now, four pirates are holding the ship’s captain hostage in a lifeboat, spawning a confluence of numerous different actors from the United States bent on resolving the crisis. And the reason why so many different actors are getting involved has something to do with (a) the complexity of the event itself, and (b) something scholars have called “requisite variety.”

First, consider the complexity of dangerous pirates operating in international waters off the coast of the Horn of Africa, holding an American ship captain hostage, and communicating no clear paths toward resolution. National reputations, corporate interests, and general notions about international-shipping safety are at stake. Thus, a number of powerful parties—Maersk Line, (owners of the Maersk Alabama), U.S. President Barack Obama and his White House, the U.S. State Department, and others—have a vested interest in the event and its outcomes.

Second, an event of this level of complexity necessarily requires a complex response. This is the notion of “requisite variety,” which essentially means that successfully dealing with multifaceted circumstances requires a similar amount of diversity within the response. There is simply so much ambiguity and so many interests involved that many different group representatives with different areas of expertise must interact and come to a collective solution. For example, the U.S. Navy’s response includes aerial surveillance and on-site monitoring by the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge. Furthermore, the FBI is now involved, and its hostage negotiators have been attempting to establish communications with the hostage takers via a satellite link aboard Bainbridge.

The collaboration between the Navy and the FBI is a good example of escalating requisite variety because Navy leaders recognized that the situation was more complex than their capabilities, and that they needed to collaborate with people who have more extensive hostage-negotiation expertise. For almost three years, I served as an officer aboard a ship identical to the USS Bainbridge. The ship itself is an extraordinary machine. It’s highly maneuverable, technologically advanced, and has a wide range of defensive, offensive, and surveillance capabilities. Its crew of about 300 comprises a highly diversified and well-trained cadre of subject-matter experts and naval-warfare generalists, so the Bainbridge and its crew are an example of a highly complex system designed to counter complex challenges.

But within this current crisis off the coast of Somalia, the decision by Navy leaders to reach out to the FBI for more expertise in the hostage-negotiation realm demonstrates a key competency of crisis leadership. Leaders must be able to recognize that when a situation requires more diversity in expertise, more requisite variety. And if they are successful in matching the complexity of the environment with a complex and well-coordinated response, positive outcomes become more likely.

So it’s an unfortunate fact that there’s no “easy button.” What leaders can do within crises, however, is pay close attention to their environments and ensure a finely grained division of labor among diverse experts in their response. They must counter complex threats with complex, collaborative solutions. It’s not easy, but it’s one key part of good crisis leadership.