Turning Five Crisis Leader Pitfalls Into Opportunities

Crises are among the most daunting challenges for leaders. The very nature of true crises – complex, high-consequence events that threaten physical, emotional, economic, and/or reputational health – test a leader’s ability to discern what is happening and what is to be done. The word “crisis” derives from the Greek “krisis” or decision. The contemporary understanding of the word stems from Middle English usage of the medical Latin variant that means “the turning point in a disease,” when the patient either lives or dies. These are the types of decisions today’s crisis leaders are asked to make in situations ranging from forest fires to active shooter incidents.

Faculty at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) at Harvard have studied leaders in crisis situations for the past 15 years. The first field research was conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has continued through Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, the sequential hurricanes of 2017. Between those events were a variety of incidents – natural and manmade – ranging from infectious disease outbreaks to terror attacks as well as National Special Security Events (NSSE) with high potential as crisis situations. Five common pitfalls emerged from a meta-analysis of those events. In response, tools and techniques to turn each into an opportunity have been developed. These tools are now the foundation of NPLI educational curricula to help prepare leaders to make better decisions and take more effective action during crises.

Pitfall #1: Becoming Locked in a Narrow View

Many emergency management leaders have risen through the ranks. Along this journey, they have developed great operational experience and expertise. In routine emergencies, this serves them well as they grasp the contours of the incident and the steps to take. In a true crisis where much is unknown, however, such rapid certainty can create blind spots that obscure important information, the concerns and needs of certain stakeholders, and clues to how the event may unfold.

Further, leaders may revert to their operational comfort zone because it fosters a sense of certainty amid chaos and provides the satisfaction of taking action. In interviews after the Boston Marathon bombings on 15 April 2013, several senior first responders related that they felt drawn to help treat the wounded. It took intentional effort for them to pull themselves back because, in their leadership roles, it was necessary for them to leave some tasks to subordinates in order to grasp the big picture and see as many of the moving pieces as possible.

The tool to stimulate such mental positioning is a “situation map.” This is a simple visual depiction of the central incident – for example, a bombing, tornado touchdown, or cyberattack – surrounded by the secondary and tertiary situations likely to unfold. In the case of the Boston Marathon, the bombings were at the center. Around them were the medical, investigation, political, media, runners and families, business continuity, and other situations. When mapped against each of these stakeholders, connections and interdependencies would emerge. Such a map may be sketched quickly on a piece of paper at the beginning of an incident. Over time, people may be assigned mapping responsibilities, which may take over a white board in the emergency operations center. No matter how sophisticated, a situation map helps the leader orient to the larger picture and identify critical gaps in the response.

Pitfall #2: Failure to Adapt Over Time

Even with a situation map, leaders may fail to grasp the evolution of a crisis over time and thus fail to adapt their thinking and actions as well as those of their teams. The classic example is Hurricane Katrina. Initially a wind event, Katrina became a water event in New Orleans once the levees broke. The dynamics of those two contingencies are divergent. The failure of leaders to make the mental shift from one to the other distorted their perceptions and priorities. It slowed the decision-making process, and gaps in the response became chasms.

An effective leader employs a disciplined process to continually test assumptions and recalibrate activities as necessary. For example, wildfire fighters have adopted a system to ensure that anomalies are rapidly and accurately reported up the chain of command. This helps leaders understand when a fire is behaving as expected – and when it is not. The NPLI tool is the POP-DOC Loop. Initially based on Boyd’s OODA Loop, which is used in air forces and other organizations around the world, the POP-DOC Loop is tailored to the needs of leaders.

The OODA Loop has four steps: observe, orient, decide, and act. The POP-DOC Loop has six steps, each aligned with a distinct cognitive function essential to effective leadership. Perceive is a more active version of observe, involving data gathering. Orient is common to both models and refers to pattern-finding and meaning-making – turning the relevant data into useful information. Once a pattern is identified and verified, it is possible to predict what is likely to happen next. In a complex event, several possible scenarios may present. POP is the thinking half of the loop. After predicting and assigning probabilities, the leader can decide, the first stop on the acting half of the loop. Decisions alone are not sufficient. The leader must next operationalize those decisions. This may entail marshalling resources, forging connectivity with other entities, and securing authorization for activities. This step turns intentions into realities on the ground. The final step is to communicate with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that they understand the leader’s intent, their role, and the ramifications.

The steps of POP-DOC are arrayed along a figure-8 loop because the leader must return to the beginning to perceive whether decisions and actions are having their intended effect. The leader reorients to see if patterns have shifted and so on back around the loop. Leaders have used POP-DOC to discipline their individual activities and serve as a guide for team meetings in the midst of crisis.

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Pitfall #3: Failure to Communicate Effectively

The C in POP-DOC is significant as communication failures are perhaps the most common pitfall for crisis leaders. These failures have occurred both internally and externally, involved all levels of leadership up to political leaders, and expanded out to the general public through the media (traditional and social). Some leaders become so focused on the operational aspects of a crisis that they fail to communicate and thus leave people unsure of what is happening and what they should do. Other leaders become extremely cautious, insisting that all communications go through multiple rounds of checks and double-checks. This can slow messaging such that it fails to keep pace with events.

One of a crisis leader’s principle duties is what Karl Weick of the University of Michigan calls “sensemaking” – that is, understanding the dimensions and dynamics of the incident and ensuring that others understand them along with the credible plan for moving forward. Weick wrote in a 1988 article in the Journal of Management Studies, “The less adequate the sensemaking process directed at a crisis, the more likely it is that the crisis will get out of control.”

The technique here is to make the mental shift from control to flow. Many emergency management leaders and first responders operate in formal chains of command. In a crisis, they situate in a formal management structure such as Incident Command Structure (ICS) or the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Each of these serves a useful purpose. However, within these environments, the pace of a crisis requires that information, decisions, and resources flow so that appropriate action can be taken when and where the appropriate people need it. One global organization with which NPLI faculty have worked has implemented an online system and repository to capture information, analysis, decisions, and actions for each of the emergencies and crises it faces. Automatic alerts are sent up the chain of command when triggered by the incident leader and the repository allows responders to consult detailed notes and outcomes from similar prior events. That is flow.

Pitfall #4: Becoming a Single Point of Failure

Another observation is that leaders think that their executive position requires that they have all of the answers and make every call. They aggressively assert control over every decision, expense, and media release. Although some assume this posture as a signal of heightened accountability, the message sent is one of distrust in those around the leader. Such an attitude limits the capacity and capability of the overall response enterprise. In an environment overly reliant on control, people can be paralyzed waiting for permission to do something.

Effective crisis leaders instead seize the opportunity to assemble and utilize a competent, empowered team and delegate decision-making except for those decisions that only they, as the top person, can make. When speaking at the NPLI, former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen called such team members, “dogs that hunt” – loyal, smart, mission-focused problem-solvers.

Such a team can mitigate risk and increase the odds of success when the incident commander’s intent, organizational values, and operational principles are clear. The result is having one commander, with many people acting as leaders – that is, thinking and acting proactively within the parameters of intent, values, and principles to resolve or even preempt problems.

Pitfall #5: Failure at Self-Care

Related to becoming a single point of failure is the tendency of crisis leaders to act like superheroes who need no rest or recuperation time. It is possible to go around-the-clock for a day or two. After that, leaders become more likely to lose the ability to regulate their emotions leading to shortness of temper and impaired judgment. The leader also becomes vulnerable to decision fatigue, a well-documented phenomenon in which the ability to make good decisions degrades over time.

In the response to the H1N1 pandemic, the Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Richard Besser made sure to take a day off from time-to-time. When he did so, he did it publicly so that his example would cascade down through the ranks. He knew that others would be leery of stepping away from the emergency operations center or other response duties if he did not do so himself. The move also provided Besser the opportunity to express his confidence in his second-in-command, whom he left in charge while he took a break.

Self-care is not a sign of weakness. It is an expression of commitment to a positive outcome and acknowledgment that one’s physical, mental, and emotional endurance have limits. No one person can do it all. Self-care shows respect for oneself and the others who need and expect the leader to be at his or her best. Research from Northeastern University has shown that workplaces with compassion outperform those that focus solely on technical expertise. The goal is to be kind to oneself and to others. Even brief breaks to meditate or walk in nature have been shown to have restorative benefits. Make them a priority.

This is not an exhaustive list of the perils of leading through crises. However, understanding the most common ones and mastering ways to overcome them equips the leaders to handle most situations. The people who do so – those NPLI calls “meta-leaders” – are true assets to their organizations and communities.

Eric J. McNulty is associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Many of the program’s more than 750 executive education alumni hold senior preparedness and response positions across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

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