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Martin Davidson

Martin Davidson

Dr. Martin Davidson is Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where he also serves as Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer. He blogs at Leveraging Difference.

Ostrich leadership at the World Trade Center

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?

I never cease to be amazed by how many skilled leaders remain silent at critical moments when even the casual observer can see that the situation calls for the leader to speak out. I call this the "ostrich" dilemma paying homage to the pervasive (though false) notion that, in response to danger, these flightless avians bury their heads in the sand. Leaders come to believe that if they do not respond in the midst of a leadership moment then they will somehow be less responsible for what unfolds in response to their silence. I have no idea what was in the minds of Feisal Abdul Rauf or President Obama as they seemingly hesitated to respond to the mosque situation; I'm not sure any distant observer really does. But I do know from my work with hundreds of leaders that while leadership silence is sometimes a strategic move to help empower constituents to act with autonomy, it is far too often the product of indecision, anxiety, and fear.

This is not rocket science. As human beings, crisis and danger can lead to fight or flight responses. Freezing up and not knowing what to do is a manifestation of flight. But part of a skilled leader's toolkit is the ability to override that response because their constituents, their organizations, and their societies need them to. People need the model of an alternative to paralysis. And most leaders, being that they are humans, have to work to develop that skill. The problem is that too many do not. Or if they have the skill they misapply it.

Let me pause before this ends up sounding too much like an ivory-tower-egghead critique by someone who has never been under fire. Actually, that would be kind of accurate. My leadership experiences don't compare in scope to those of a head of state or of a leader of a religious or social movement. But even in my experiences of crises in my professional and civic leadership, I have behaved like a proverbial ostrich on more than one occasion. I have found myself stymied by the complexity and anxiety of pressure leadership moments. I didn't know what to do. I worried that any move, one way or the other, would have negative consequences for the situation and for the people who were counting on me. And I really didn't want to look bad in front of my constituents because I made the wrong choice; I didn't want to look incompetent.

I've learned from many powerful leaders and from my own experience that leadership is knowing that there is never a fence to sit on. Leaders I've worked with strategically employ a "wait and see" tactic in response to a range of demands on them from crises to simple requests, but they often fail to realize that just because they have chosen silence, that doesn't mean the situation pauses. Followers don't tolerate leadership vacuums. If a leader is silent, his or her followers make up stories about why that leader is not responding, stories full of drama and intrigue that often blame the leader and fail to help the situation. Leaders have to be cognizant of this and mindful to obliterate ambiguity with voice and action, especially in the midst of crisis and fear.

Leaders never have time off. Even when a leader takes a vacation, his or her persona as a leader remains present in the minds and hearts of followers. Just ask Tony Hayward.

By Martin Davidson

 |  August 26, 2010; 8:51 AM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Time is now for imam to speak on mosque | Next: Leadership's next frontier: Changing how we use our words and bodies


Please report offensive comments below.

Mosque should not be built, because it will honor all the killers:
osama and his gang who conducted the 911 attacks & killed 3000, but also:
faisal shahzad the times square bomber
richard reid the shoe bomber
umar farouk abdulmutallab the underwear bomber
sirhan sirhan, killer of senator robert kennedy in 1968
fort hood killer-major nidal mlik hasan (killed 12, wounded 30 & survived)
USA Today article talks about the huge cost of Hasan's killings: Nine months after an Army psychiatrist was charged with fatally shooting 13 soldiers and wounding 30, the nation's largest Army post can measure the toll of war in the more than 10,000 mental health evaluations, referrals or therapy sessions held every month. Attacks and killings have cost USA big bucks--- lots of billions, lots of lives including a US
senator, who could have been the president of USA.

Posted by: vk1537 | August 26, 2010 5:10 PM
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Thanks for putting into clear words what has been building up in my mind for weeks now. Excellent.

Posted by: peterloringborst | August 26, 2010 1:23 PM
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