Leadership in a Crisis: Professional or “Pick-up”?

By Guy Higgins

I was meeting with a potential client last year when I was challenged that planning to respond to emergency or crisis situations was an unnecessary effort and expense.  “As a leader that’s what I get paid for – to respond to situations out of the ordinary.  I don’t get paid my salary for running the daily operations; the staff does that.”

Needless to say, that was not quite the attitude that I expected.  Very few leaders to whom I have spoken have expressed the idea that they can handle, ad hoc, anything that comes their way.  I’m certain that most experienced leaders can handle the majority of the bumps, hiccups, glitches and SNAFUs that get dropped on their desks.  That ability is a good thing since we can’t have a plan for everything and we can’t take the time to put together detailed plans for responding to a sprained ankle in the lobby – we rely on our experience and many of the standard operating procedures we’ve put in place over time.  Sprained ankle?  Help the person to a chair and call the person on the first aid list.  No problem.

Moore, Oklahoma – that’s not a sprained ankle.  How do you, as a leader, respond to that situation?  No, you don’t get to think about it.  Your business and your offices have just been devastated.  Where are your employees?  What are their priorities?  What are your priorities?  What do you need to do first?  RIGHT NOW!!!!  Do you have a press release?  Is a press release even the right thing to be worrying about?  Come on, you need answers right now.

Unfortunately, being a human (regardless of what some of your competitors think about your ancestry), when faced with a crisis of any kind, you are going to do one of three things; freeze up, run like crazy or lash out – that’s the old fight or flight (with the addition of freeze) syndrome.  You’re human – you will do that!  It’s a response that is deeply embedded in the evolutionarily oldest and most primitive part of our brains – right at the base of brain.  Dr. Leonard Marcus of Harvard calls that “going to the basement.”  So, now you’re faced with a devastated business, probably injured employees, an overloaded local emergency response system AND you’re “in the basement.”  And Ghostbusters are still not in …

Dr. Marcus has research that shows there are two things to help you get out of the basement – quickly.  Those two things are; 1) recognizing that you’re in the basement and 2) having a plan to respond to the emergency/crisis that put you in the basement to begin with.

Now, back to the executive who thought that responding to emergencies and crises was just part of the job and that it could be done “shooting from the hip.”  How well will that executive react to a crisis if he is “in the basement” with no plan?  At that point, shooting from the hip will be his only course of action, but how effective will that action be?  Beyond finding himself frozen in the basement, no matter how smart and how experienced he is, he simply cannot think of and do all the things that he needs to in a high-pressure situation.  Having a plan is important, and, equally important, is practicing the plan.  Professional athletes (who arguably are the most skilled people in the world at what they do) practice applying their skills on a daily basis.  They have the skills, they practice the skills, they know the team’s strategic approach, they know the game plan for the next game, and they practice it.  When you take the snap and drop back with a blitzing linebacker thundering down on you like a freight train is not the time to look at the playbook.  You have to know where everyone is and what they’re doing based on the play that was called – this is not pick-up ball in the park.  You have to absorb what they are actually doing and respond – NOW!

That’s exactly what we, as leaders, need to be able to do in emergency and crisis situations.  We need to have a plan, know the plan, understand what’s going on and how that changes our planned response and act.

Plan, train, exercise.  Leadership is far too important to relegate it to pick-up status.


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