In January 2009, New York, the largest city in the world, was very close to seeing a serious airplane crash. An aircraft with more than 150 occupants stuck a flock of geese shortly after the departure, resulting in losing both engines. Captain Sully Sullenberger quickly diagnosed the problem and decided to proceed emergency landing in the Hudson River. As a result of this prompt yet very suitable decision, not a single life was lost. Later this heroic story came out in a movie that was named after the Captain's name, Sully, in 2016.
It was January 2009 when New York City, the largest metropolis in the world, faced a grave aviation crisis. An airplane carrying more than 150 people encountered a flock of geese immediately after departure. As a result, both engines instantly lost their power. Sitting in the cockpit was Captain Sully Sullenberger. Sullenberger swiftly identified the problem. After a quick yet thorough investigation, he opted for an emergency landing on the Hudson River. This decision was not without its risks and even the air traffic controller was taken aback. Long story short, thanks to his prompt and fitting judgment, not a single life was lost. A few years later, this incredible tale of leadership and courage hit the silver screen as the movie "Sully".
Even if you don't work in aviation, I am sure this heroic story will resonate with a lot of leaders. Drawing a parallel between a flight carrying hundreds of people and an organization, the leader assumes the role of the captain, guiding its path and ensuring its protection from potential harm. Amid unforeseen ordeals, their true capacity to lead becomes evident. Only those who are proactive and able to demonstrate a keen ability to make difficult decisions with clarity and purpose will be able to confront challenges head-on and emerge stronger than before.
What is a Crisis and Crisis Leader?
Before we talk about effective leadership during a crisis, we need to begin with an assessment of what a crisis is: What it is and perhaps just as importantly, what it isn't.
When asked to define 'crisis,' you will find that people provide varied responses, with ten different people offering ten different interpretations. Often, people are inclined to relate crises to tangible occurrences such as thunderstorms, water disruption, terror, labour strikes, pandemics, or aircraft accidents just like we mentioned above. They all have one thing in common: They are nearly unpredictable and inescapable. It's almost impossible to prevent all the complete parts that could go wrong.
Every leader, be it in a small or large organization, lives and breathes with this reality. Presidents are no exception. When asked by a young journalist to name the biggest in leading the country, Harold MacMillan, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom replied, 'Events, dear boy, events!' Today, organizational leaders face innumerable threats of floods, fires, terrorism, fraud, data breaches, pandemics, spills, contaminations, blackmail, faults, extortion, litigation, and hurricanes. The list goes on and on.
So let's go back to our initial question. How can we define a crisis? In our research, we have found that even experts have different ideas about what exactly constitutes a crisis and how to classify them. Still, we wanted to arrive at an easy, straightforward explanation so that we can discuss how we can nurture crisis leadership. As a result, we have come up with a comprehensive, pragmatic definition: A crisis is a major event that doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it can seriously endanger the organization's future.
This then naturally brings us to the role of a crisis leader. Firstly, a crisis leader is someone who courageously embraces significant challenges, which they might not have dealt with before. Secondly, they can handle the situation even with limited knowledge about what caused the challenge. Lastly, a crisis leader is someone who can make fast decisions and choose the best course of action promptly.
Consequently, we can judge if crisis leadership is effective by seeing if the leader keeps their job after the crisis. Crisis leaders don't just go after gains; instead, they concentrate on lessening losses and keeping the team on the right path.
Let's take another look at Captain Sully's story. When he faced a bird strike, his main goal was no longer reaching the original destination. Instead, the priority swiftly shifted to safely landing the aircraft without causing harm or casualties. This successfully demonstrates the core principles of crisis leadership. During a crisis, your focus should shift to protecting your organization and its people, even if it means a temporary slowdown in growth.
Commencing Crisis Leadership
To respond efficiently to any problem, proper classification is needed to determine the appropriate course of action. Just as there are multiple definitions of a crisis, various categorization methods exist. Leaders and property management professionals cannot afford to delve into all different methodologies. Based on our experience, we would like to introduce a simple yet efficient method of classifying crises into two categories: Incident-driven and Issues-driven.
As the name suggests, this crisis type is what most people think of when given examples like crashes, explosions, spills, and leaks. These crises tend to occur abruptly and without any evident advance notice. In most cases, the leader will receive information about the situation simultaneously with others, without any prior warning.
The abrupt nature and intensity of incident-driven crises can push leaders to act immediately. While emergency leaders need to react promptly when appropriate, strategic crisis leaders need to respond differently. They should focus on creating a suitable environment and taking their time to handle their responsibilities well. In other words, they should create a space to gain all the information accessible, go through them attentively, and come up with the best approaches they can take. In essence, the primary challenge in an incident-driven crisis involves slowing down the tempo of both thought and action.
Recalling the extremely shocking occurrence of 9/11, one can only fathom the immense burden it must have presented to the nation's leader. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, the president of the US back then George W. Bush was engaged in reading a storybook to young children at an elementary school. It was during this reading event when his chief-of-staff entered the room and informed him of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York City. This is the perfect moment for any leader to lose calm and even go ballistic. However, in the crucial moment when the nation's defense appeared to have suffered a blow, President Bush's ability to remain calm and resist immediate action became apparent. Rather than abruptly leaving or issuing rapid commands, he consciously chose to remain still. A decade later, when asked about the reason behind this action, former President Bush explained that he aimed to avoid heightening fear among his followers or granting a sense of victory to the attackers. He knew that everyone was looking at him to gauge the future outlook of the nation. By remaining calm, former President Bush showed everyone that the nation remains resilient and steadfast.
You may think that this example is too big in size. Then picture this scenario: Your company is suddenly engulfed in a fire while you are away. Fortunately, the fire is quickly extinguished, and no one is harmed. However, you now face the challenge of dealing with damaged property. In addition, a sudden influx of tasks is now overwhelming your workload. As a leader in this situation, the temptation to immediately jump into action may understandably be strong. Yet, it is crucial to consider the potential consequences of such hasty actions.
Just like how every news media outlet meticulously and closely scrutinized ever every word that came out of former President Bush's mouth and gesture he took after 9/11, in the event of an incident-driven crisis, your followers will attentively observe your every move to gauge the severity of the situation. You would not want to give the impression that you are either ill-equipped to handle the issue or that the well-being of your employees is not a priority.
In short, for any incident-driven crisis, leaders must prioritize setting a pace that allows them to effectively lead their organization. In addition, we highly recommend that they create and utilize cognitive space to carefully consider the available options at hand before putting them into action.
On the flip side, there are crises driven by issues These crises are characterized as insidious and slow-burning. In general, they involve gradual disruptions that can rapidly gain momentum. Unfortunately, we see too many cases where their detrimental effects on an entire business model go unnoticed until it is too late to intervene. Issue-driven crises may not only stem from broken systems or policies but also from seemingly ordinary and neglected problems.
Let us give you an example: The Banking Crisis of 2008, also known as the Global Financial Crisis, which shook the global economy. One of its primary consequences was the collapse of numerous major financial institutions, including Lehman Brothers, one of the oldest and largest investment banks in the world. However, this incident did not appear entirely without warning. In fact, Numerous prominent economists and investors correctly identified crucial factors, such as subprime mortgages and declining credit markets, before the crisis hit.
Let us give you another example. In our role as a commercial restoration company, we frequently encounter numerous cases involving mold problems. It never fails to surprise us how many property owners or managers underestimate the gravity of mold. They often perceive it as a superficial issue that can be resolved simply by scraping the surface or concealing it with a fresh coat of paint. However, when mold permeates the structure of a property, it can significantly compromise its structural integrity. In the worst-case scenario, a seemingly minor mold issue can gradually escalate into a severe crisis, eventually leading to the business's closure.
Unlike an incident-driven crisis, with an issue-driven crisis, the primary challenge for the crisis leader does not lie in generating additional time and space. These resources are typically available in abundance, particularly at the early stages. Instead, what is most important is fostering a sense of urgency. If you neglect to address the emerging crisis quickly, it can lead to missed opportunities and hinder effective crisis leadership.
Crises can occur unexpectedly, and the leader's capacity to make sound decisions will shape the organization's future viability.
I like the analogy of tea bags. Just like a tea bag reveals its true colour when it is submerged in hot water, I believe this also applies to leaders. When faced with a crisis, a leader's genuine capabilities are often finally revealed, exposing their true strength or weakness.
Because crises are inescapable, it is crucial for leaders to gain the ability to accurately diagnose the nature of the crisis before making a decision. Otherwise, the business may experience sustaining adverse effects.