Present, visible and empathetic
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?
Are they inspired by the reality television show Undercover Boss? Maybe flying through ash is easier when you have the hefty life insurance policy of a major corporation CEO? Or, perhaps they are fully aware of authority's role in a crisis: lead by example and be present, visible and empathetic.
In this case, we know the CEOs aren't the ones running experiments on the ash, but we want them on that plane. We feel safer. The CEO wouldn't put his life at risk, would he? Their role is not symbolic, it's real. They are dead if the plane goes down.
It's a strong message that they are involved and perhaps consumed by the crisis. A memo sent from the home office or a picture of the CEO at his comfy desk doesn't work.
Failure to follow these guidelines during crises will haunt top officials. Remember President George W. Bush merely flying over and looking at the damage from Katrina from comfortable Air Force One? A firestorm erupted. He was derided as insensitive and out-of-touch. He was on the ground a day or two later. Of course, there wasn't much he could do once there, except the only things he must do - lead by example and be present, visible and empathetic.
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