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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Leaders need to involve themselves in crises

Q: President Obama weighed in on the issue of the mosque at Ground Zero prompting grumbles that the gesture was unnecessary and politically damaging. Meanwhile the imam at the center of the controversy -- Feisal Abdul Rauf -- has been largely invisible, lecturing for the State Department in Bahrain and, according to his wife, unavailable until next month. What do leaders need to know about perfecting the timing of weighing in on a crisis?

Failure to respond to a crisis is a failure of leadership. Timing as in when to become involved is a component of the response.

Case in point is the oil spill in the Gulf. Initially Tony Hayward, then CEO of BP, was actively engaged in the crisis. He even went to Houma, La., to provide on site assistance. Then curiously, likely on the advise of legal counsel, he pulled back and seemed unable to manage the crisis. And it did not help when he said he wanted "to get his life back." Timeliness was not Hayward's issue; engagement was.

This was a problem the Union army experienced during the early years of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln found himself afflicted as he said with a general who suffered from the "slows." Gen. George McClellan, commander of Union forces was an officer who prided himself on preparation and drill. Trouble was he was reluctant to put his well-drilled forces into action. He hung back when he should have attacked and he failed to pursue when he should have pursued. McClelland was a general without any sense of timing or engagement.

When a crisis strikes leaders need to do three things:

Be seen. You can tell if a leader is up to the job when trouble strikes. If a top boss stays hidden, or cloistered with staff and unavailable to employees, you know he is not right for the job. I can still recall the example from years past set by my daughter's high school principal. He made a practice of standing outside the school and greeting the students by name as they entered. He also made himself available for after-hours chats.

Be heard. We want to know what our leaders' minds; they need to let us know what they are thinking through their words and their actions. If they do not articulate a message, then a vacuum of information develops allowing rumors to proliferate. This past April, Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was on the scene of the Massey-owned mine explosion that killed 29 coal miners. As the disaster unfolded, Manchin was on the scene helping to coordinate relief efforts as well as to brief the media. Manchin also spent time with the miners' families. To this day he continues to advocate for stricter mine safety standards.

Be there. This is the tough one. Being there means being part of the action, becoming actively engaged in the process of stemming the crisis or putting the organization back together after the crisis has passed. One of my heroes who illustrates this best is Ernest Shackleton, the early 20th century Antarctic explorer. When his team was stranded on the ice and later on a small island off Antarctica it was Shackleton as "boss" who was there to provide support, discipline and good cheer all in good measure.

The cold hard reality of crisis management is that crises are unpredictable. Seldom do they follow a script, this means that leaders need to be active and engaged whenever called upon to do so. And they must do so with a sense of calmness and control. A leader who withdraws from the fray or seems hopelessly lost sends the worst kind of signals. This breeds fear from which no good can come.

No leader can stop a hurricane, or the after-effects of a product recall gone wrong, but he or she can step up and exert command over the situation. This comes from knowing the circumstances, trusting in the judgment of colleagues and making decisions deliberately and decisively. We call that leadership.

By John Baldoni

 |  August 24, 2010; 8:57 AM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: It's not when, but what Obama said | Next: Obama did the right thing stepping in


Please report offensive comments below.

By the way, John ... this is NOT a crises it is a private controversy.

Posted by: Hazmat77 | August 25, 2010 3:46 PM
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John Baldoni ... you are wrong in asserting that Obama should step up and show leadership regarding the proposed Islamic Center and mosque.

Aside from zoning and building code compliance, government should have no role in this situation.

The developers have the right to build pursuant to the Constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom. And simultaneously, those who object have an equal constitutional right to object.

All local and federal Politicians need to show leadership by staying out of this controversy.

Posted by: Hazmat77 | August 25, 2010 3:44 PM
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