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Erika James

Erika James

Erika James is the Bank of America Associate Research Professor of Business Administration at UVA's Darden School and co-author of the 2010 book, Leading Under Pressure.

Not of their making

Q: A cloud of volcanic ash grounds European airlines and the chief executives of KLM and British Airways join their crews on test flights to show that it is safe to fly. What do these actions say about the importance of symbolic involvement by top leaders in responding to crises?

Today's executives are leading through considerable turbulence. For the airline industry, the on-going financial challenges alone are a perfect example. Now add to those long-standing burdens the current situation in which thousands of planes are grounded as a result of volcanic activity. The result is lost revenue (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each day that flights are canceled), agitated passengers, and an operational nightmare. Who prepares for a crisis like this?

Interestingly, a volcano eruption has interfered with air travel before so the situation is not a new one. Consequently, although one cannot predict a crisis like this, there is reason to believe leaders would have systems in place for dealing with an operational disruption of this sort, though perhaps not of this magnitude.

Perhaps a more compelling question is what should an effective leader do in the midst of a crisis? Several airline executives have taken test flights around the affected areas to demonstrate flight safety. The gesture I am sure was intended to be both symbolic and reinforcing, and symbolic activity is important for effective crisis handling. Stakeholders must perceive that leaders are doing all that they can, even if circumstances prohibit them from doing precisely what stakeholders necessarily want. Moreover, given that many passengers have been dissatisfied with flight travel and its cost in recent years, executives should do as much as they can to pacify this important stakeholder group.

What I am less convinced of, however, is whether the airline executives have chosen the right symbolic action. Sure it is terrific news that in some circumstances it is safe to fly. But how does that news help the stranded passengers whose flights have been canceled in perpetuity because of industry regulations and backlogs? Are they getting to their destinations any sooner as a result of the executives having participated in test flights? If the symbolic action isn't clearly linked to a defined outcome then it may perhaps frustrate stakeholders more than appease them. Under this circumstance, my advice is to focus energy on those activities that will quickly get passenger's moving. This might mean spending additional time and resources on operational issues to facilitate travel once the flight ban is actually lifted.

Perhaps working in the airlines favor more than symbolism is the fact that the crisis was not necessarily one of their own making. They cannot feasibly be blamed for the volcano's eruption. Both research and conventional wisdom demonstrate that stakeholders have more empathy and patience for leaders under pressure when the crisis is a result of external circumstances. Yet, even this good will has its limits. If stakeholders come to eventually conclude that executives are inept at handling the situation, then the firm's reputation will be severely damaged, and no symbolic action will help.

By Erika James

 |  April 20, 2010; 5:38 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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