The crucible of crisis proves the mettle of leadership. After a crisis, leaders who evince empathy and authenticity often emerge with greater respect. Leaders who equivocate, don’t show up or try to shift blame typically lose respect.
A crisis can make or break a leader. But as the English proverb goes, “A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner,” so leaders and would-be leaders should adhere to Winston Churchill’s admonition to “never let a good crisis go to waste”.
Crisis leadership has received a lot of attention and accumulated mountains of advice. Some of the best advice – face reality, don’t waste time, dig for the root cause, fix what needs fixing, follow your True North and communicate.
However, actual crucibles of crisis may offer the best evidence of what works and what doesn’t.
Michael DesRochers, writing for ragan.com, compiled a useful group of examples that provide lessons from the past and things to think about in the future. “History is a great teacher. We can all learn from what’s happened, so as to not repeat mistakes.”
Here is a synopsis of his case-by-case observations:
BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The costliest oil disaster in history exposed a dysfunctional corporate culture that tried to spin and deflect its way out of the crisis. Key lesson: “Leaders must bring teams and affected communities together”. Empathy helps – a lot.
Uber. Sexual discrimination charges against the CEO and a barrage of missteps by drivers sent a hot brand into a cold ditch. Key lesson: Create a set of cultural values for your employees to follow – and then walk your talk at the top.
American Airlines. The carrier was forced to cancel 3,000+ flights, grounding 250,000 passengers, but without adequate or forthright communications to those affected. Key lesson: Limp, generic statements by underlings and belated apologies by the top dog won’t cut it. They reflect a lack of empathy and risk loss of consumer trust.
Not all the examples shared by DesRochers featured missteps. Here are some good or almost-good responses:
Athenahealth. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings while authorities were still searching for the suspects, Athenahealth “demonstrated a proactive and dignified approach to business continuity and crisis management.” Employees when hired receive a wallet card with a VP’s phone number and other emergency contact information. Four days after the bombing, gunshots were heard near the facility. An alert employee called the vice president at 4:30 who in turn alerted the organization’s crisis management team. By 5:30, every Athenahealth employee in Watertown received a message via home phones, work phones and email to alert them to the potentially dangerous situation. Key lesson: An emergency contact system that actually works is becoming an increasingly critical part of crisis management and necessary to sustain employee goodwill.
Whole Foods. The grocery retailer developed a digital communication network to alert employees of COVID-19-related issues, but it failed to make employees fully aware of the alert. When an employee tested positive for the virus, Whole Foods sent a voice mail to other employees with sparse details about what they were supposed to do. Key lesson: You cannot automate sensitive information, especially when it involves the spread of a highly contagious virus and has personal health and job ramifications. Talk to employees and explain your efforts to protect them.
Marriott. Like others in the travel and hospitality industry, Marriott reeled during the COVID-19 lockdown, seeing revenues plunge by 75 percent. Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson didn’t dodge his responsibility. In a six-minute video, he delivered the bad news about layoffs, explained the reason and announced he would forgo his remaining salary for 2020. Sorenson became tearful during his video, showing his own emotions as he tried to offer encouragement by saying, “Together, we can and we will overcome this, and we’ll thrive once again.” Key lesson: Authenticity, directness and realism are leadership traits that shine during the darkness of a crisis.
DesRochers offered a final tidbit of advice. After a crisis passes, leaders should take the time to talk to employees and stakeholders to get their feedback on the organization’s crisis response. Welcome, don’t pout over criticism. Take reactions and suggestions into account as you upgrade your crisis plan for the next, inevitable crisis. Remember, never waste a good crisis.