Threats are not limited to natural disasters by any stretch of the imagination. The threat of terrorism and ethnic strife continues to rise as tensions mount in the middle east, east-Asia, and Africa. Ecological disasters from oil spills to climate change are no longer ideological, but real, existing and experienced threats. And political and economic troubles continue to loom; from Greece and the Euro Union to the fiscal cliff faced on our own home front. Simply reviewing the headlines of today’s media sources testify to the simple fact that we as a human race face more crises today than yesterday, and leaders of today have no choice but to be exceptional leaders in times of crises if they plan to truly lead. And today, all of us on this planet are in a position where we need true leadership to lead; to lead us out of the situations we find ourselves in economically, politically, socially, and globally.
With this in mind, we focus on what it takes to be a true leader in times of crises. We look at our president; we look at our governor and mayor; we look at our business leaders; pastors; community organizers, and ourselves. What does it take to truly lead in times of crises? What will it take to truly lead through the times we are facing?
I recently came across an article in the Harvard Business Review; an interview by Scott Berinato with Adm. Thad Allen (Retired), the Senior VP of Booz Allen Hamilton. This interview caught my attention at first because he is scheduled to give the Key Note Address at my upcoming conference in New Orleans (International Disaster Conference & Expo, or IDCE). But as I read this interview with Adm. Allen, I couldn’t help but to apply his thoughts to every other crises faced; from government (the fiscal cliff is a serious issue needing serious people prepared to make serious decisions… which I don’t think we have in our government on any side, at any level… sorry), to business (economic insecurity and uncertainty is definitely a major global crises), to how I lead my family.
Admiral Allen, former Admiral of the U.S. Coast Guard, managed the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Previously, Admiral Allen also managed the response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf, and also managed New York Harbor during the 9/11 attacks. He also managed the U.S. response and relief activities to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The interview conducted by Berinato was on-point and direct regarding leadership, and his thoughts on what it took to be a leader through these times of crises. He summed it up into a few key points and phrases.
- Unity of Effort: what you're trying to do is aggregate everybody's capabilities, competencies, and capacities to achieve a single purpose, still taking into account the fact that they have individual authorities and responsibilities
- Unify all on the team: create a set of shared values that everybody that's involved can subscribe to.
- Visibility: If you're not visible with your people, then you're not a credible leader. You don't understand what they're going through.
- Adapt, suffer or manage.
- Leaders are responsible for their own morale… keep a level playing field.
- Definition of leadership iss the ability to reconcile opportunity, and competency
As I read, I was brought back to my time in show management with a fairly large company where we opened an event on 9/11. It was the most traumatic experience I have ever had as a show manager, and the most challenging scenario of Crisis Management I have ever experienced.
We had opened a conference in Worcester, Ma on Monday September 10, 2001. All was quiet, and all was good. We had a very successful registration program, presenting an attendance representing an increase in overall attendees of over 30% from the previous year. Our exhibit sales for the year had been extremely successful, presenting an expo floor reflecting a 20% increase in exhibitors from the previous year. Speakers selected to present in this conference program were the best of the best. It was our first time in Worcester, and the city was happy to have us. The event was set up to be one of the best events to date for this brand; the brand I managed.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001; 8:46 AM: American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into the World Trade Center… the first of many which were to attack our country that day.
With the majority of the planes on 9/11 taking off from Logan Airport in Boston, MA, the civil authorities in Massachusetts order a complete shutdown of all highways, rail, air, and sea transportation. All public facilities in MA were shut down. Security in public facilities ensure a complete lockdown of all buildings; no one enters or leaves.
Our conference program kicked off day 2 of our event at 8:30AM EST. Our trade show floor was schedule to open at 10:00AM. We receive word through the event facility management that there had been “an incident”, and as a result, all public facilities were moved to complete lockdown. We had freight on docks waiting to move to show floor. About 40% of our exhibitors had not yet arrived to the facility. All doors were closed, and military and state police surrounded the building ensuring no person would leave or enter. We were not alone; the majority of public facilities throughout Massachusetts were called to lockdown.
Within 10 minutes of the lockdown, we began to receive reports of what was happening. Terrorists had hi-jacked planes and had crashed them into buildings in New York. Some planes were still unaccounted for. A number of the planes originated out of Boston. The entire 90-mile radius of Boston was at large. That was all we knew.
As the manager of the event, I was now faced with an unprecedented position. I was being called upon to lead my entire show team through these crises. I was also responsible for the 500+ conference attendees, 250+ exhibitors, and numerous additional staff, and would have to lead them through this ordeal. Due to the intense and sudden use of cell phones throughout the country, cell towers began to fail. We had to establish communications so those in the facility could begin reaching loved ones. A number of conference attendees were from the Boston area, 2 of which had loved ones on the flights which were hijacked. We were dealing with grief counseling; communications; security; and the need to ensure information was delivered to all.
What I faced was not an oil spill or hurricane. It wasn’t economic uncertainty (at least not immediately). It wasn’t government issues or community guidance. My hurdles were specific to the situation and location at hand; but I happened to be the person tasked with leading us through the ordeal. It was a true crises, and everyone involved needed leadership.
As I read Adm. Allen’s comments, I realized this is exactly the leadership needed when I faced these crises in 2001. Some I had performed well; others I hadn’t. But as I reflected, I realized that Adm. Allen hit the nail on the head. In leadership, there are certain attributes you must have to truly lead in times of crises, and these times of crises will define your true ability to lead.
Unity of Effort: This is something we did instinctively. We made a conscious effort to ensure we were aware of all of the individual core competencies available to use and delegated responsibilities accordingly. We placed certain people on counseling detail, while others were put on logistics and transportation details. Others were tasked with working with facility management to establish communications for all in the facility. Some were tasked with setting up internal news feeds to keep others informed, or put in charge of ensuring food and beverages were available. I was tasked to work with facility management and government officials to ensure procedures were adhered to. We simply put a plan in place to ensure all resources were allocated efficiently and effectively.
- Unify all on the team: We were successful in this game plane because we united the team, discussed the challenges faced, and established a set of shared values and vision that everyone subscribed to. The result was motivation to ensure each job was done to the best of each person’s ability.
- Visibility: I stayed as visible as possible, helping in all areas from setting up phone banks to cleaning restrooms, working with military on the loading docks to inspect freight, and sitting with people who were grieving over their loss. I didn’t leave one task assigned where I was not around to help or assist if needed.
I worked to ensure the morale I portrayed was positive, no matter how saddened I was by my experiences or hopeless I felt over the enormousness of the tasks at hand. As I look back on this experience, I understand the effect this had on our team. Leaders are responsible for their own morale, which affects the morale of others. You have to keep a level playing field, and I did to the best of my ability. In the end, we were able to reconcile opportunity and competency, and the result was the successful navigation of serious crises.
Bill George wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “Seven Lessons for Leading in Crises”. Bill George, author of "True North," is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. He is also the former CEO of Medtronic and serves on the boards of directors of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs and Novartis. In this article, he stresses the following:
- Leaders must face reality. Everyone on the leadership team must be willing to tell the whole truth.
- No matter how bad things are, they will get worse
- Build a mountain of cash, and get to the highest hill
- Get the world off your shoulders
- Before asking others to sacrifice, first volunteer yourself
- Never waste a good crisis
- Be aggressive in the marketplace
Many of these “lessons” are in line with what Adm. Allen refers to in his fundamental outline of success in crises leadership, and are reflective of what I experienced in Worcester, Ma, but are applied in the business setting. From facing reality and telling the whole truth, no matter how grave, to allocating responsibilities to the right team members, putting yourself in the front line of fire, and leading others only where you are prepared to go yourself… all apply, and these fundamentals apply to all areas of leadership in any crises situation.
As we face the “Fiscal Cliff” with our government, and economic uncertainty in the global work place, we now need leaders who will step up and lead. We need leaders who will role the sleeves up and make tough decisions. We need leaders who will tell the truth, no matter how rough. We need leaders who will understand that they, as leaders, are responsible and stop blaming everyone else for the problems we face as a nation and people. We need leaders who will recognize the opportunities we have to overcome these issues and show their competency. We need leaders who understand that no matter how bad things are, they can get worse, and WILL get worse if these crises are not addressed… if THEY do not truly LEAD through these troubled waters. We need leaders who will be willing to sacrifice themselves for what is right; who will volunteer themselves to get the job done.
In short, we need true leaders. They are out there and it is time to step up. I just hope they hear the bell ringing.