All Leaders Can Be Crisis Leaders
Oil spills, cybersecurity attacks, product boycotts, and unfavorable media coverage; are a few examples of low probability, high threat situations classified as a crisis. Crisis Leadership: How to lead in times of crisis, threat, and uncertainty by Tim Johnson calls for organizational leaders to develop a "crisis-ready culture" and not feel swayed in unexpected, adverse events impacting one's organization. Johnson argues that influential crisis leaders exemplify the same qualities for successful leadership in daily organizational life but under significantly different conditions. He supports this argument by taking the systems theoretical approach to address decision-making and emotions in the workplace and communicating using the human resources approach.
If people can demonstrate leadership abilities in daily organizational life, they can be effective crisis leaders. Johnson's book describes how to do just that. He tells how leaders can overcome the challenges they face in the overwhelming opening hours of a crisis. Next, Johnson encourages crisis leaders not to work alone but with colleagues who can make effective decisions and realistic strategies. Larger organizations can create a team to tackle the crisis, whereas smaller organizations may not have this option.
He then discusses how the leader should act during meetings and how to run effective ones. By conducting meetings with a purpose, it will prevent ineffective losses of time or inconclusive ends. After, Johnson explains how crisis leaders or designated spokespeople should navigate communicating with the public. Spokespeople will need to prepare themselves to field difficult questions and provide honest answers because speaking will feel more like an interrogation. With what seems like never-ending pressure and stress, leaders in crisis also need to cultivate healthy coping mechanisms unique to each person to ensure they can be at their best to help others. Next, Johnson turns his attention to how leaders can determine when crisis response mechanisms can be stood down, signaling it is time for them to put their organization on "firm footing." Johnson concludes his book by exploring how to prepare crisis leaders.
There is not a straightforward answer to solving a crisis. Any "solution" to a crisis came about because of a "complex process involving multiple and varied stages" (Miller, 2015, p. 154). Crisis leaders employ the bounded rationality model to make decisions by working within limited information and organizational constraints. For example, Johnson (2018) argues leaders concern themselves with probability because "any given decision [a leader] made had a 30-40 percent chance of failure, but [they] accepted that satisfactory, rather than optimal was about the best [they] could achieve and was thus able to direct [their] energies accordingly" (p. 78). Leaders cannot please all their stakeholders, and their decision falls under immense scrutiny when their organization has unwanted and likely negative attention directed toward them. Therefore, decision-making during a crisis is not the burden of an individual, rather a responsibility of a Crisis Management Team (CMT).
A CMT forms to respond to a situation of such seriousness requiring decision-making beyond the responsibility of those operating individual resilience tasks. Depending on the organization's size, a CMT may consist of "core" membership or of several functional representatives to allow space for the views and consideration of multiple perspectives. While crises require decisiveness and task-oriented leadership, leaders may try to solve the wrong problems if they do not have as much information as they need to see the whole picture. Regarding small group decision-making, which a CMT consists of, there may be a tendency to fall into groupthink "if team members are too afraid to voice their views if they differ from that of the leader (and other team members)" (Johnson, 2018, p. 118). Instead, Johnson argues for the importance of leaders to create a "just culture" where people are not punished if they make mistakes and voice their concerns. Although it is tempting for crisis leaders to give commands or leap into reactionary behavior, this urge results from emotions influencing the depth and processing of decisions.
Effective leaders, not just crisis leaders, display high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ). These leaders use their EQ when attempting to increase the amount of time they have to make an executive decision and create more cognitive space to consider trade-offs (Johnson, 2018, p. 48). Incident-driven crises are those commonly thought about when a "crisis" comes to mind. They are the sudden and unpredictable crashes, spills, explosions, leaks, attacks, which may push leaders to act immediately. According to Miller (2015), "Emotions are seen as sensemaking opportunities" (p. 212). Therefore, Johnson argues an effective crisis leader should hunt for ways to buy time and space to understand the complexities of the crisis and decide how to respond. In doing this, the leader should outwardly "remain calm, composed and reflect very little demonstratable emotion as the first step towards securing the time and space they need for themselves and their organization" (Johnson, 2018, p. 50). The organizational members notice the leader's behavior and will mimic that behavior. Similarly, the public desires a spokesperson to look to for hope and reassurance.
When determining who should represent the organization in times of crisis, it may not always be the CEO. The spokesperson's role is to convince stakeholders of the organization's commitment to the response and reassure them that the crisis is not indicative of a structural failing (Johnson, 2018, p. 147). While it is simpler to look for ways to blame, the emotional intelligence of the spokesperson must be high to not trigger empathy by identifying the organization as a victim. It is also considerate of the spokesperson, crisis leader, and CMT to ensure their families know that everything they say or do will be public (Johnson, 2018, p. 179-180). Additionally, addressing with their family that the intensity of the crisis will render them distracted and distant will help remove a toxic spiral leading to decreased performance in work and personal life.
However, the life cycle of the crisis will eventually near its "end of life," and the stress wanes. The leader will then strategize how to dismantle the response structures and determine how to return their organization to "normal" functioning. For many organizational team members, they want their life to "return to normal," yet "there are some who will find the jolt from operating at high levels of adrenaline for weeks or months on end—with a sometimes clearer and more acute sense of mission than they do in their daily lives – extremely hard to bear" (Johnson, 2018, p. 199). This may be especially true for the crisis leader who may suffer "agonizing period of post-dissonance" and self-doubting the decisions and action they took or could have taken (Johnson, 2018, p. 199). When the leader exemplifies the types of behavior expected of team members and communicates with them transparently, they will be more attuned to having faith in their management to make it through the crisis. This interdependent relationship between employees, management, the CMT, and the public is evidence of how Johnson uses the systems theoretical approach to discussing how crisis leaders make decisions and handle their emotions, which he also uses throughout the book.
The systems theory attempts to understand the interconnections of organizations instead of focusing on one part. Johnson discusses how crisis leaders and teams engage in sensemaking, are hierarchically ordered, interdependent, permeable to each other and the environment, and engage in feedback and exchange processes (Miller, 2015, p. 65). In times of uncertainty, crisis leaders work together with a CMT to engage in sensemaking. By doing this, they gain greater situational awareness and avoid overlooking critical components of the crisis. Although there is a CMT in place, "effective crisis structures are typically structured to enable organizations to approach the situation from an operational (local), a tactical (regional) and a strategic (global) level" (Johnson, 2018, p. 38). Despite the low probability of a crisis occurring, Johnson argues that organizations should prepare smaller, hierarchically ordered subsystems embedded within the "business as usual" resiliency task forces.
The CMT is interdependent and more than the sum of its parts. For example, Johnson (2018) describes teams as existing "within a series of concentric circles which begin with the environment, contract into the organizational context and end at the team, or the specific group context" (p. 109). The CMT connects with many organizational departments when communicating about and solving the crisis. Each of these different system components (communications, operations, intelligence, logistics, finance, etc.) depends on each other to function effectively. However, the "trigger," which activates the crisis leader and CMT, usually comes from external sources (Johnson, 2018, p. 65). This relationship with outside forces demonstrates the permeable nature of how organizations respond to a crisis—the CMT exchanges information internally, with other system components, and the public.
The relationship between the organizational spokesperson and the public via social media, television interviews, and press releases (to name a few) showcase the avenues the public has to provide feedback. Johnson (2018) gives an example of a communication response from an organization in crisis starting with:
The release of a tweet, followed by a brief 'holding statement,' is to put onto the
organization's website. The press office is then mobilized to answer questions put to the
organization by the media. Depending on the nature of the organization and its role
and the heart of the crisis, helplines are established, be they for customers, passengers,
or local community members, or any other of the myriad potentially impacted
stakeholders (p. 56-57).
Whether the public responds to these messages favorably or ignites public outcry, this feedback will guide the organization's transformation. Although Johnson writes his book from a systems point of view, the communication he encourages crisis leaders to employ is a human resources approach.
Amid a crisis, Johnson encourages organizational members to use multiple channels and a multidirectional flow of communication. People want to stay informed about the status of the crisis and actions taken to control it. According to Miller (2015), "Change is viewed as a complex process involving the interaction among multiple stakeholders. Leaders are encouraged to harness the power of communication network connections" (p. 192). Crisis leaders desire to maximize the productivity of resolution and match their communication network to respond to the crisis at hand. Many communication mediums crisis leaders and the CMT utilize include video, teleconferencing, telephone landlines, access to the rolling news, sending emails or text messages, or simply talking to each other to remain transparent with stakeholders.
These stakeholders may include the internal employees, government officials, shareholders, and the public at large. The crisis impacts these groups differently, so the crisis leader, CMT, or spokesperson must adjust their words and communication mediums accordingly. Therefore, the CMT needs to have its own space to work allowing them to meet face to face as quickly as possible to determine how to disseminate information to the stakeholders. Crisis leaders should consider the contributions of all CMT members to devise a strategy to handle the crisis. Johnson (2018) writes, "It almost certainly requires leaders to be open to feedback from those they work with most closely to determine what it's like to give them 'bad news'" (p. 28). Internal team feedback is valuable for both the leader and members because it will enhance the organizational effectiveness of the CMT, and the individuals will feel like they are part of the solution. Given the human resources approach to how organizational communication should operate between team members, Johnson provides a solid argument that relays what leaders should do when faced with an organizational crisis.
Tim Johnson does not purport to give leaders a "how-to" guide, nor does he take the "great man" leadership theory approach. He simply lays down his reasoning why crisis leadership is challenging and supports his claim with interview testimonies and draws from his own experience in a "crisis room." For example, Johnson offers three critical preparatory activities crisis leaders can utilize to ensure they and their organization can tackle a crisis. He does not explain how leaders can use these techniques but makes the audience aware of the existence of the tactics. Additionally, Johnson inserts interviews with Captain Steven Hawkins, Lord (Mervyn) King, General Stanley McChrystal, and Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who share their experience with crisis leadership.
Johnson includes these interviews to illustrate critical concepts of crisis leadership and how people applied them. He does not argue that the actions these people responded with are the single, proper course of action to take when faced with a crisis. Instead, he uses these people's stories to exemplify situational leadership and showcase how these leaders adapted their current skillset to tackle the problem. Each leader and crisis are unique, making it challenging to create a standardized crisis management plan which will prove successful for all leaders and organizations. For these reasons, Johnson effectively argues what leaders should do when faced with a crisis. However, there are some potential problems with the overall approach Johnson advocates for in his book.
Despite using the system's approach, Johnson provides checklists and step-by-step information. While checklists may reduce the mental burden and assist with problem diagnosis, crises are unpredictable, and leaders need to adapt as the situation unfolds (Johnson, 2018, p. 60). According to Miller (2015), "People (in the workplace or otherwise) don't often follow the prescribed steps of defining the problem, establishing criteria, searching for information, evaluating alternatives, and reaching a decision" (p. 196). Johnson's writing style echoes some elements of the classical management theory by how he breaks down and prescribes what leadership behavior looks like when trying to establish the structure of the CMT. Although Johnson highly encourages the benefits of teamwork during a crisis, he does not discuss the value of the diversity of team members.
The systems approach looks at the overall purpose and responsibilities of teams, but not the individual contributions or backgrounds of members who consist of them. Miller (2015) writes, "Over time, the diverse groups developed communicative strategies for encouraging participation and eventually generated a wider range of alternatives and perspectives on a problem than homogenous groups" (p. 12). By generalizing the term "team" and leaving it up to the reader to form their preconceived notion of what a "team" looks like, Johnson does not discuss the dynamics of how leaders or CMT members would be different if they were women, minorities, people with disabilities or older employees. Johnson describes the need for people of differing job positions to join a CMT, but not the diversity of people in those roles.
When reflecting and evaluating how well the leader and CMT handled the crisis, Johnson encourages the organization to look at the totality of interactions. But how will the organization determine the individual performance of CMT members due to the interconnectedness? According to Miller (2015), "Different organizational members will imbue information inputs with different meanings and hence create different information environments" (p. 69). While a team will achieve more together than individually, the team cannot grow stronger together without the individuals who comprise it. The potential problems with Johnson's approach may deter leaders from taking the advice because they can envision the consequences, which Johnson did not address in the book. However, there are flaws with all arguments, and it is up to the reader to decide which information is relevant to them.
From a participative organization perspective, communicating with a human resources approach will form the most innovative solution to the crisis. The situation calls for the organization to reconfigure itself to a more team-based setting with small group decision-making. In the waking hours of a crisis, organization members may experience confusion and uncertainty, but if they see their leader exemplifying a calm composure who appears in control is a powerful way to demonstrate control. However, crisis leadership is just an extreme form of situational leadership. If the leader of an organization demonstrates effectiveness in times of "business as usual," they have the competence to navigate through a crisis because leadership requires the same skills but under changed circumstances. Instead of feeling swept up in short-term considerations and rash decisions, leaders already possess the potential and leadership capabilities to advance their organization through a crisis.