Seven qualities we seek in leaders during a crisis

Posted on Written by Mary Elston
Mary Elston

Autumn had been dry, too dry. Before winter officially arrives in Colorado it often drives by in the early fall with a white dusting in September or a slushy snowstorm on Halloween.

That was not the case in 2012. After several weeks of temperatures that were 20 degrees higher than normal, worrisome thoughts were forming around a potential drought by summer — no mountain snowpack, no water. It wistfully reminded me of an inverse situation.

Years ago, a blizzard in Denver left me stuck at home for days with my car trapped in the garage (low ground clearance was not my friend). The storm in March 2003 dumped nearly 3 feet of snow in 36 hours. I had a 6-foot drift covering the entire width and length of my driveway. Yeah, I should have bought a snowblower in August.

How did local leadership handle the crisis? The city was paralyzed for days. Having too few snowplows led to a range of improvements in snow removal and related public works.

Flash forward to a recent and much bigger natural disaster: the devastation on the East Coast from Hurricane Sandy. When a crisis hits, officials must respond quickly and decisively. How did they perform? Overall, with high marks. Let’s take a look at how superlative leadership faces emergency situations and what makes a pivotal difference in successfully handling a catastrophe. Equally important is how months or years of rebuilding are handled.

Although this list is not exhaustive, it speaks to common characteristics that voters and employees want to see in their leaders when a disaster occurs.

1. Prepared: Is the right person in charge? Proactive, prepared leaders exude a sense that the answer is “yes” — particularly when it comes to cataclysmic weather that has been seen approaching for days. Regardless of whether the wind changes and tragedy is averted, officials must have emergency-response programs in place and thoroughly instruct residents to prepare or evacuate.

Even more so when disasters such as 9/11 occur, there is no room for political puffery. A crisis command post must be activated with timely precision and trained emergency teams should be ready to quickly respond. Physical and mental health services likewise must be ready, not by chance, but by the direction of sound supervision.

2. Calm and engaged: A calm manner must be the partner of preparation. Knowledge, planning and experience help evoke authoritative poise. Instructing citizens to prepare or respond to a major catastrophe needs to occur in a calm, controlled and honest fashion. Dramatic or exaggerated statements by a leader undermine character and integrity. Calm, well-timed, well-structured announcements and direction should be provided to the public straight from their leader, not by a spokesperson. This promotes composed, specific actions from citizens, bolsters overall public demeanor and helps build a positive communal response — neighbors helping neighbors.

3. Confident and decisive: Effective crisis navigation is a multifaceted phenomenon that builds from one action to the next. Did you notice that’s what we’re doing here? The prepared, calm and engaged leader also must come across as confident and decisive without being cocky or conceited. Knowing what to do, making progress in restoring crucial services and sharing information in a constructive and detailed manner promotes public confidence, too. In times of crisis we want our leaders to lead and produce results, as opposed to providing rhetorical statements or deflecting their inability to drive results with finger pointing or blustery, evasive comments.

4. Collaborative and open to input: History has proved many times that excellent leadership does not develop unilaterally. It requires collaboration and input from trusted advisers who are managing vital elements across a corporation, city, state or nation. Collaborative leaders must be smart enough to consume advice as part of reaching informed and well-conceived conclusions. For the collaborative, yet decisive leader — especially when tragedy takes place — egos must be checked at the door, with the greater good at the forefront of judicious decision making.

5. Accountable, humble and appreciative: Who’s in command? Superlative leaders are never asked this question because their humble dedication and confident, collaborative approach make their ability to lead an obvious dynamic. Their efforts consistently gain respect from others. They are wholly accountable for decisions and bestow high praise and appreciation on those who are generating successful outcomes. If things go wrong, they are ready to take the blame and corrective action. This approach to exemplary executive behavior is described in Jim Collins’ Harvard Business Review article, “Level 5 Leadership, the Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve” (January, 2001). In all cases, but especially when disaster occurs, this is the leader you want in charge.

6. Empathetic: Hurricane Sandy took many lives, destroyed hundreds of homes and for weeks disrupted basic necessities such as water, power and heat. While the capable crisis leaders are making decisions, remaining calm and confident and guiding residents through the next course of action, they also must be incredibly human. Empathy includes publicly stating and recognizing the emotional and physical distress that victims are experiencing and helping them work through their pain through memorial services, the creation of foundations or memorial sites (such as the 9/11 memorial) and other publicly or privately sponsored programs — organizing not a one-time “so sorry” moment, but programs that reflect how the public wants to recover and remember the many losses sustained.

7. Communicative: The most revered and successful leaders never assume that people know the decisions that are being made, and why. Instead they engage in a timely sharing of information throughout a crisis, as well as during an often lengthy reconstruction and recovery. No one can read the mind of a leader or manager. Leaders should provide accurate insight about the actions they’re taking. The scorecard that tallies how well crisis leaders did their jobs is greatly influenced by the quality and frequency of their communication.

Back to the blizzard of 2003. Our cul-de-sac had its own set of heroes. Because the city was unable to respond quickly on a broad basis, those who had snow blowers helped neighbors dig out and open up the street.  Even after the initial path was forged, the snow was still so high that only SUVs or trucks (I didn’t own one) could navigate the mountains of white piled everywhere.

With higher ground clearance in high demand, sedans such as mine were marooned inside or buried alongside a snow-drifted curb. I bought a four-wheel-drive SUV a few months later — love it, never going back. As you think about the last crisis or natural disaster you have experienced or seen from afar, consider who was in control and how they navigated the disruption to begin the arduous task of healing, rebuilding and recovery.

These seven steps for superlative leadership are essential for expertly handling a catastrophe. They also are highly valued by those fortunate enough to work in an environment in which an excellent executive with these qualities is at the helm.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at mary@masteryoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue.

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