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Marty Linsky
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Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Katrina, 9/11 and Tylenol Lessons

When we are potentially panicked, what we want from those in authority is (1) to be present, (2) to feel our pain or anxiety, and (3) to be reassuring verbally and by action without being disingenuous.

President George W. Bush did not understand any of that in the immediate post-Katrina period. After 9/11, Rudy Giuliani got the first two parts right, but he did not have the courage to help us understand that the world had changed. He told us to keep on buying, eating out, and entertaining ourselves while they went after the bad guys. That was a failure of leadership.

It's the razor's edge balancing reassurance and transparency that makes responses to crises and potential crises so tricky.

The classic corporate case was Tylenol tampering in 1982, when a total recall helped reassure us that the authorities at Johnson & Johnson were bending over backwards, going beyond what they had to do, to provide that reassurance that we would be safe. They did not try to convince us, for example, that there were only isolated cases and that almost all the product out there was OK. They did not leave it to us to protect ourselves.

Transparency is a tool, not a moral value. Too much information can be just as bad as not enough. We do not need to know everything that the officials know or are thinking about, only enough to understand that they are on the case, take it seriously, and have given us the information we need to take appropriate steps to protect ourselves.

Overreaction on the part of public officials, too much information, can also breed panic. The earlier swine flu scare, back in 1976 and 1977, is an example. By publicly preparing for the worst case scenario, planning for the inoculation of all 220 million Americans, officials made the problem appear to be worse than it was and almost created the panic that they were trying so hard to avoid when the vaccine itself triggered some new ailments.

By Marty Linsky

 |  April 28, 2009; 10:19 AM ET
Category:  Managing Crises Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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