Leading, not managing, in crisis
Imagine you were the person at BP headquarters in 2010 who got the first call: A drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico had exploded and sunk, killing 11 workers — and allowing oil to leak into the ocean at a rate of 43 barrels a minute. What would you do? Which colleagues would you convene, and which of the myriad problems would you address first? Would you put out a press statement or a tweet or send a spokesperson to the scene? Would your focus be on managing the situation — or actually leading the company through it?
Particularly in the age of Twitter, it’s more important than ever for organizations to swiftly and adeptly respond to a crisis — whether it’s a full-blown disaster or merely a disgruntled customer’s tweet that’s starting to spread. In surveys, executives now rank “reputation risks” among their top worries, largely because bad news travels so much faster than it used to. A Forbes headline, written after video of a passenger being dragged off a plane went viral last spring, succinctly sums up the danger: “How United Became the World’s Most Hated Airline in One Day.”
For many companies in such predicaments, the first call often goes to a crisis management consultant, or “fixer.” But according to James Haggerty, who specializes in this work, if you’re caught so flat-footed that you need outside help immediately, you’re already behind. In “Chief Crisis Officer,” he suggests that companies take three pre-emptive steps: designate an insider who will manage any situation that might arise (not the CEO, but someone trusted enough to make a big decision — such as the CEO’s chief of staff, an experienced public relations hand or an assistant general counsel); appoint a rapid response team to help that person; and give that team some scenario training.
Haggerty classifies crises according to their speed (an “exploding” crisis versus an “unfolding,” slower-moving one, such as a big lawsuit), and examines nuts-and-bolts issues, such as limiting media access. His focus is tactical: He argues that companies should create a laminated, one-page crisis playbook, similar to what an NFL coach carries on the sidelines. Calling BP’s response to Deepwater Horizon “one of the worst PR responses the world has ever seen,” Haggerty says that blame lies not just with then-CEO Tony Hayward but with the entire leadership team’s lack of preparedness to communicate should an oil spill — an obvious risk for the company — occur: “The fault, as I see it, lies not in the weak, fumbling messages that BP put out in the initial phases … but rather the lack of an adequate, executable plan that led directly to those fumbled responses.”
Tim Johnson, a London-based crisis consultant and the author of “Crisis Leadership,” argues for a slightly different approach. Drawing on academic research, he focuses less on the need for flowcharts and checklists and more on developing a “crisis-ready culture” and leaders who are steady enough to make deliberate, wise decisions even as the world speeds up — which is essentially what happens during a crisis.
Johnson describes two kinds of bias that arise from a fight-or-flight response and lead to bad choices: “intervention bias,” or the urge to overreach and take on tasks for which an organization is ill equipped; and “abdication bias,” which causes one to eschew responsibility or blame others. (Lawyers are particularly fond of the latter.) Actually leading in a crisis, he argues, requires avoiding these impulses and instead figuring out what’s really happening, thinking hard about stakeholders’ needs and creating a purposeful mission to guide the response. “Resist the urge to do anything immediately,” he writes. Ignore the adrenaline, work with a high-performing team, get the facts, ask questions and listen; then make a plan.
Counterintuitively, Johnson points to President George W. Bush’s reaction on 9/11 — when he continued sitting with Florida schoolchildren even after being alerted that New York City was under attack — as exemplary. “By not outwardly reacting, [Bush] bought himself space to think and time to react,” he writes.
Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School, examines a different kind of crisis: one that drags on, putting a leader in a vise of unending decisions. In “Forged in Crisis,” she draws profiles of five leaders who experienced such stress: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (an anti-Nazi German clergyman) and the 1960s environmentalist Rachel Carson. Koehn sees in these historical figures some of the characteristics Johnson prescribes: a cool deliberateness and a willingness to be patient even under pressure. Lincoln, for instance, “discovered the power of mastering his emotions in a specific situation carefully enough to take no immediate action or, in some instances, to do nothing at all,” she writes. “In our own white-hot moment, when so much of our time and attention is focused on instantaneous reaction, it seems almost inconceivable that nothing might be the best something we can offer.” Yet history suggests that in some crises, it is.
As should be clear, these are three very different books. It’s hard to imagine a CEO asking, “What would Lincoln do?” when his company’s stock is tanking because of a viral video. Still, the recommendations offered aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s probably smart for a CEO to delegate tactical crisis management to a deputy, preappoint a team and have some version of a playbook (laminated or not) at the ready. But that same leader should also aim to stay calm and above the fray, to keep an eye on the long game and to understand that in many situations “Let’s wait and see” is the wisest response.
(Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, and the author of “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.”)
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