Many agree that the true test of leadership is being able to take people in a direction where they would not go on their own. Passing that test, and enabling the organization to live another day, is never more critical than in a time of crisis. This Ivey professor has found that great leaders exhibit six types of behaviour in a crisis, and in this article, he describes each behaviour and recommends what leaders need to do to manage the crisis successfully.

In 1994, Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire was serving as the force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Dallaire and his troops had set out to help two warring parties achieve peace. One of the parties was a rebel force known as the Rwandese Patriotic Front, and the other was the Rwandese government. In the end, Dallaire and his international force were caught up in a genocide that claimed the lives of more than 800,000 Rwandans. Dallaire recounted the following event:

One of my sergeants arrives in a village. It looks like all the people have been slaughtered. Then out of the chapel come a couple of hundred people. The sergeant calls to his headquarters and asks for transport to move the people to a safe place. While he is on the phone about 30 kids, aged 12 to 15, armed with machine guns and machetes, begin shooting at the sergeant, his troops and the Rwandans he is trying to protect. Then, from the other side, more boys start to shoot at the sergeant. The boys use young girls, some of them pregnant, as human shields. People are being hit with bullets; some of them are killed. What should the sergeant do? Children kill. Does he kill children? What should the sergeant order? Those boys with machetes are ready to kill the people the sergeant is trying to protect. The sergeant cannot attend a conflict-resolution seminar; he has nanoseconds to make a decision. The rules of engagement are strict regarding intervening between members of the two parties, the Hutus and the Tutsis. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda is a humanitarian mission. What is the proper decision to take? The wrong decision can scuttle the whole peace agreement and undermine negotiations for a ceasefire.

In another example of leadership in a time of crisis, this time in 2003, Dr. Colin D’Cunha, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario, and his team faced an unknown enemy-the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. One of D’Cunha’s challenges was to isolate infectious people in their homes. Unfortunately, not everyone complied with the isolation orders, and this increased the risk of the disease spreading rapidly through the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) population and beyond. In D’Cunha’s words:

… there was a suggestion to shut down the GTA. And we looked at it, and the only reason we didn’t go with it was that we felt confident that the outbreak was predominantly restricted to the northeastern area. The major driver behind shutting down the GTA was a group of infectious disease specialists in the Toronto hospitals-not all of them, but a substantial group. And they came to us with a draft letter to the government suggesting that the GTA be quarantined.

The letter was leaked to The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most widely read national newspaper. D’Cunha and his team had to deal with two immediate challenges. First, should Toronto be shut down and the GTA be declared a “no-go zone,” with a tight cordon around every airport, train station, ferry link, highway and bus terminal? The cordon would have to be in place for 10 days; anyone infected with SARS would remain in the GTA for treatment, and traffic would only be reopened when the infectious period had passed. Of course, this intervention would have an enormous negative impact on the local economy. Second, the press and the general public were demanding to know the true state of the health crisis. Dealing with an angry and worried public is something that leaders may have to deal with when they are working through a crisis situation.

Leading in a time of crisis

There are lessons that business leaders can learn from the ordeals of Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, his sergeant and Dr. Colin D’Cunha. Sooner or later, business leaders will encounter the unexpected. Leadership is never put to the test more strongly than when the unplanned-for happens, or when those in leadership positions have to navigate the rough seas of organizational change.

Most businesses operate in a complex and uncertain environment in which strategies that were successful in the past quickly become redundant in the face of legislative, technological and market change. For example, in the early 1990s, the CEO of IBM, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., had to implement an entirely new business model to ensure that the company could put an end to a period of ongoing losses. Today, entire industries are prone to abrupt changes and, as numerous organizations have learned, business models can quickly become obsolete. For example, AT&T’s revenues are shrinking at a rapid pace as its primary business-long-distance phone service-comes under attack from traditional and Internet competitors. Air Canada suffered a dramatic decline in its passenger market in the wake of September 11, the war in Iraq, and SARS. WestJet Airlines and JetsGo, airlines that use a low-cost business model, have proved to be tough domestic competitors, and have taken market share from Air Canada. Air Canada’s unionized labour model has made it difficult for the company to compete with other carriers on price. The CEO of Air Canada, Robert Milton, has had difficulties in getting the concessions he needed from the unions to lead the airline out of the crisis.

It is an understatement to argue that we live in unusual times, when it can be challenging for business to adjust to change and respond to crises. Those organizations that are ill-prepared for change will undoubtedly face problems, some of which may evolve into full-fledged crises. Strong leadership is a critical determinant of success in times of crisis. I have identified the following six behaviours or mindsets that are critical for leaders in crisis situations. Strong leaders:

  1. Practise foresight.
  2. Have no choice but to be decisive.
  3. Are exceptional communicators.
  4. Are visible.
  5. Connect with the people, even in the midst of the crisis.
  6. Are prepared to take risks.
  7. I explore each of these behaviours below and show how well they have been demonstrated (or otherwise) by recent leaders of business, government, sports teams and nations.

1. Use foresight: Anticipate the worst

A crisis leader must be proactive, anticipate the unexpected and prepare the steps that will be taken in the event of a crisis. All too often, however, people in leadership positions manage crises in an ad hoc manner. For example, in Dallaire’s words:

A leader cannot build his reputation on being surprised like everybody else and in trying to sort out the problem. Leadership is about anticipating. He has got to be in there, formulating and providing security, and building confidence in those who are working with him as to what they can expect into the future.

It is not realistic to think that one can be prepared for all possible crises. But leaders need to have a general idea how they are going to respond if they are hit with a rare, perhaps catastrophic event. Ian Mitroff and Murat Alpaslan, researchers at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, have argued that leaders need to have the ability to think comprehensively about crises-to think about the unthinkable. Hence, contingency planning and “preparing for evil” are critical. For example, when asked to reflect on the terrorist attacks of September 11, Robert Scott, president and COO of Morgan Stanley, the largest tenant in the World Trade Center, observed that, “If you wait for a crisis to begin to lead, it’s too late.”

Existing response plans should be tested. People need to understand what to do in the event disaster strikes. For example, when D’Cunha was chief medical officer of health, he flew to the U.S. several times to participate in “War Games,” a series of crises scenarios led by the Department of Homeland Security. The point of such exercises is to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the various people on the crisis management team before a real crisis hits. As D’Cunha noted: “You don’t want to write the manual while you are flying the plane.” Simulations also allow people to identify glitches and think about ways to eliminate them. Problems may include an unclear command structure, poor coordination among emergency response teams, health units and governmental agencies, or poor communication structures.

From a business perspective, recovering from a financial crisis is like a chess game. Down the road, where can I go? What are my options? What are the practical or legal implications of each branch of the decision tree? Bill Aziz, a turnaround champion, coined the term “foxhole management.” In his words:

You’ve always got to be thinking: what consequences spin out of these series of decisions? I try to look ahead, not back. I am always trying to look five to seven quarters ahead. I try to encourage a corporate culture that is based on long-term goals. Too many people are focused on short-term goals, and if you focus on short-term goals, then you don’t always make the right decisions. Much of what we do is based on “how can we do today?” If people actually were thinking in a longer-term mode, I think a lot of us would be better off.

2. Be decisive

D’Cunha and his team quarantined more than 27,000 Ontarians during the SARS crisis. His observation on this action:

Was the number in excess of what we would like? Absolutely. But you have to remember that our lead organization on the ground, Toronto Public Health, did not cope well in the early days of the outbreak. So we made a conscious decision that if we were going to make a mistake, we would quarantine far more people than we needed to. …If one person slipped through the crack, we had the potential for major problems.

Too many leaders wear rose-coloured glasses for too long; they hope that the organization is turning a corner and that “sales are just going to come.” But they rarely do. Dealing with the inescapable truth often requires a leader to make tough decisions or “break bones.” Failing to “do the right thing” because it is unpleasant will only exacerbate the problems. For example, Carly Fiorina, chairwoman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Andrew Grove, chairman and former CEO of Intel Corp., had no choice but to confront their workforces with the inescapable facts. Intel faced a global overcapacity of memory chips and processors and was threatened by the commoditization of chips. HP’s business model (as did Intel’s) needed an overhaul. Both Fiorina and Grove took decisive, yet painful actions businesses were closed or spun off, and people lost their jobs. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, observed that a critical factor separating great companies from mediocre ones is whether executives ” … explain away the brutal facts rather than…confront the brutal facts head-on.”

3. Be an exceptional communicator

Crisis leaders have to be very clear and focused on the message when they are communicating. They have to be honest with people, tell them what they are going to do, and tell them why they are doing it. Lawrence Rawl was the CEO of Exxon when one of its oil tankers ran aground and began spilling oil in Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska. Rawl’s behaviour during the Exxon Valdez crisis is often used to illustrate how not to communicate when disaster strikes. For example, Rawl was suspicious of the media and refused to communicate with them. When asked whether he would be willing to be interviewed on television, Rawl replied that he “had no time for that kind of thing.” The media became hostile and continued to expose Exxon’s inadequate responses to the escalating crisis. Rawl then agreed to be interviewed. However, during the televised interview, it became painfully clear that he had not read the most up-to-date plans for the clean-up. Rawl’s poor communication and the absence of strong leadership during the crisis caused huge damage for Exxon.

In contrast, the team in charge of leading the SARS crisis communicated with the media and general public every day for several weeks. The purpose was to educate and cut through the media clutter. D’Cunha observed:

What we found was that if you didn’t sit down and manage the media, the media went out and created rumours and loose ends and we then had to sit down and tidy up. Some of the media would do more harm than good by potentially creating panic, paint an inaccurate picture of events, and frighten people even more. So by taking control of the message and by being frank, factual and scientifically critical, you can get your message across.

There is a consensus among experts that there is no such a thing as over-communication during a crisis. Being a person of few words is a recipe for disaster to those in leadership positions. People want to feel informed, safe and connected when a crisis has hit. Clear, regular communication helps meets that need.

4. Be visible

The crisis leader must be among the first on the scene and lead from the front, giving directions and solace. Being unresponsive can hurt your reputation as a leader. Dallaire explained:

One of the revolutions we went through was the fact that in the old days the general, when things were going well, would invite everybody in and show all of the equipment as well as do some recruitment. However, when things were bad, we would close the gates with barbed wire, put a young lieutenant out there, and instruct him to say to the media, “no comment from the general.” That approach does not work any more. Nobody wants to talk to anybody else except the leader. And the leader has got to be in the forefront of wanting to talk. And in order for the leader to be able to influence and give the right information, that leader has got to have been right on the scene assisting in solving problems and building that confidence. And so it’s an exercise of not staying in the office or the conference room. We’ve entered an era, in fact, where the leaders are expected to be omnipresent.

In the context of business organizations, Aziz notes:

You have to identify key stakeholders and get face-to-face with them. Getting face-to-face with people tells them that you are sincere. I used to go to the docks at 2 in the morning at Interlink Freight Systems. I was the first president that they had seen in the dock in the middle of the night, and the reason I went there was to see what goes on. I went one time on a truck trip from Toronto to Kingston, switched trucks in Kingston and drove to Montreal. I learned what the truck drivers were talking about, their worries, and found out that if you’re a truck driver and you sit in a truck eight hours a day, with a rattle beside your head in the truck, you come out of that truck furious. I came out of that truck in Montreal and I went down to the basement where they had a place where these guys eat breakfast and I sat down by myself, ordered some bacon and eggs. Suddenly one guy came over and he wanted to know who I was. Pretty soon I had about a 100 guys around me, all truck drivers and dock workers who wanted to talk. They’d never seen a president of this company in their little cafeteria. It’s all about how you get along with people.

The events of September 11 have taught us many lessons in crisis leadership. For example, in a Fortune magazine article, writer Jerry Useem compared the behaviours of Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, to President George W. Bush.

What did everyone say about Giuliani? “He was everywhere-with the firefighters, on television, running for his life when the second tower collapsed.” What did everyone ask about Bush as he zigzagged toward the capital on September 11? “Where is he?”

5. Connect with the people

Having great people skills is critical-a leader has to be able to get along with people as easily on the shop floor as in the boardroom. Being able to connect with staff-sharing information, explaining decisions, seeking feedback and input, listening to their concerns, treating them as intelligent, smart human beings, showing an interest in their lives, and so forth-is critical for fostering commitment or compliance with the course of action that the leader wants to pursue.

The destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, was a traumatic event in the United States. That day, 168 people, including a crèche of infants, were killed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two Americans. President Bill Clinton went to Oklahoma City; he participated in the ceremony of national mourning for the victims, and publicly grieved with the families of the victims. His speech struck a resonant note of national healing. Clinton’s handling of this barbaric act is regarded as a turning point in his presidency.

Glenn Tilton, chairman, president and CEO of UAL Corp., met with thousands of United Airlines employees soon after he was hired as CEO in 2002. He took the time to answer their questions regarding his plans to turn around the sinking, strife-filled airline. His courage to meet in person with the employees received rave reviews, and management scholars noted that the face-to-face reassurance from Tilton was a critical step toward building “a reputation of credibility and caring.”

There are numerous examples of humble, caring and respectful leaders who have won the support of their employees to make the exceptional possible, or to make significant sacrifices. Gaining commitment to challenging goals, and sustaining commitment in the face of obstacles and setbacks, is a key leadership challenge. In short, the time is now for leaders to engage their people, connect with them, and foster commitment. When a crisis hits, these leaders can trust their people to execute the decisions that will prevent the crisis from escalating and bring the situation under control. In The Leadership Moment, Wharton professor Michael Useem writes that our actions today may make the difference between success and failure tomorrow.

6. Be prepared to take risks

Crisis management often requires that leaders make quick decisions. Crisis situations are fraught with uncertainty. There will be instances where the crisis leader doesn’t have all the information or answers, and may not have them for weeks or months. People have a tendency to remain in the trenches when times are getting tough; they keep their heads down and play it safe. This mindset or approach will make problems worse. Instead, what is required of a leader in a crisis situation is the guts or courage to make the best possible decision with the set of all available facts, coupled with a solid professional background and instinct. Then the leader must communicate that he or she has knowledge and control of the solution, and full confidence in the chosen course of action. Anything less and the leader will lose the confidence of the people.

Some leaders will freeze up and fumble their chance to shine when confronted with a challenge. Others rise to the occasion. For example, in Buck Up, Suck Up… And Come Back When You Foul Up, James Carville and Paul Begala use Michael Jordan’s accomplishments in game 6 of the 1998 NBA championship finals to illustrate great leadership behaviour. The game between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz was on the line; there were less than six seconds to go. Jordan was able to hit the winning shot on the buzzer because he wanted the ball when the game was on the line. The other players on the court were skilled professionals, but none of them had the determination to grab the ball, take the risk, and accept the consequences. The Bulls won the game 87-86, a victory that earned them their sixth championship in eight years. Jordan’s heroics during the series and the final game are considered to be among the “NBA’s greatest moments.”

Organizations must have strong leadership to survive a crisis. I have described six behaviours or mindsets that characterize strong crisis leadership: Practising foresight, being decisive, communicating well, being visible, connecting with people, and taking risks.

This is not an exhaustive list; there are, no doubt, additional behaviours that leaders can (and should) demonstrate to help their organization “weather the storm.” But these six key behaviours help explain why some crisis leaders walk on water, while others sink without a trace.