Erika Hayes James

Making a call for all (crisis) leaders

Wanted:  Leaders. Desperately seeking leaders willing to put their ego aside in order to guide us out of a vicious cycle of bad decisions, short-sightedness, and financial despair toward an integrity-based vision where innovation and creativity is the norm. We are looking for leaders open to a diversity of thought and perspective.  We will consider men and women of all ages, religions, race and ethnic groups, and sexual orientations.  Only serious inquiries need apply.

Over the course of my career I have been a student of business crises, and the ways in which they are traditionally managed, to a full-fledged expert in what I now call crisis leadership.  The distinction between crisis management and crisis leadership in my opinion are clear and decisive.  To manage a crisis one follows a fairly prescriptive path with a focus on damage control and getting back to status quo.  To display crisis leadership, however, is to have foresight, networks, decisiveness, the capacity to learn, and a willingness to take risks.  Many good business leaders can manage a crisis.  Very few have shown to display crisis leadership.  Consider, for example, the fact that after 20 years Johnson & Johnson is still held up as the gold star for handling a crisis.  Contrast that with the number of failed crisis management attempts we have witnessed in the last decade (Enron or WorldCom), or in the last 5 years (Hurricane Katrina), or even in 2008 (the entire financial and automotive industries).  After all of these opportunities to benchmark and identify effective or ineffective crisis handling, have we learned nothing in the way of leadership in turbulent times?  It appears we have learned very little.

So what do we know about crises?  We know that crises are inevitable.  Some crises may be avoided, and some may be managed well-enough to limit long term damage, but inevitabley every organization and every nation will experience crisis.  We know that it is often the handling of a crisis that leads to more damage than the crisis event itself.  We know that effective crisis handling involves much more than good communications and public relations.  Although these certainly help, rhetoric and a positive spin alone will not completely “solve” a crisis situation.

If these are the things that we know about a crisis, what do we not yet fully understand about them?  First, I believe that we have little appreciation for the role of learning from crisis. I believe that learning is the best hope we have of preventing repeat occurrences, and yet most managers or executives are of the mind that crises are situations that happen to someone else.  Crises are remote and unlikely events to be sure, but as we have seen in the past year, every organization is susceptible to one and we do ourselves a disservice when we are not mindful of OPC – other people’s crisis.  Second, because the executives focus is so exclusively on problem solving in order to end the crisis, there is little mindshare for the possibility that crisis events can create a potential for significant opportunity to be realized for individuals, for organizations, and for countries. Crisis leaders do understand these two issues and it is their ability to act on them and learn from them that separates crisis managers from crisis leaders.

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