Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Crisis Leadership: The 4 Keys to Preparing
By: Eric K. Stern on August 27, 2013
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Inside the San Francisco EOC, agencies work together on practicing for the response and recovery to a simulated magnitude 7.8 earthquake during the 2013 Golden Guardian exercise. Photo by Paul Williams

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The United States has experienced great turbulence in recent years, serving as a vivid reminder of the crucial role of leadership in cultivating resilient communities — communities able to prepare effectively for, respond to and recover from major crises. Devastating tornadoes, derechos, hurricanes, floods, wildfires and volcanic eruptions across the nation have reminded us of our vulnerability to the vicious whims of Mother Nature. The Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., massacres as well as the Boston Marathon bombings are tragedies resulting from the ill intentions of human perpetrators. Events like these (and others such as the massive industrial explosion at the fertilizer factory in West, Texas) provide extreme tests of community resilience.

When the moment of truth arrives as it did for Boston during the marathon bombings, for New York and New Orleans during hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, it becomes apparent not only that strong leadership in the moment is needed, but also that many of the key preconditions for effective crisis/emergency management and community resilience have been set long before the crisis. In The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure, my co-authors and I argue that crisis management can be usefully broken down into five key challenges that appear repeatedly in the hundreds of crisis cases from around the world that we studied. These are: sense-making, decision-making and coordination, meaning-making (crisis communication), ending (“accounting” and terminating the crisis), and learning.

However, recent experience drives home the point that a crucial responsibility of leaders (inside and outside of government) begins well before the crisis. Therefore, the five leadership tasks should be complemented by a sixth: preparing. Preparing consists of several subtasks: organizing and selecting, planning, educating and training, and cultivating vigilance and protecting preparedness.

Organizing and Selecting

The first responsibility of leaders with regard to crisis management is to ensure that an appropriate crisis organization is in place and to select suitable staff for key functions in that organization. There is no single optimal form of crisis organization; rather a crisis organization should be designed taking into account the characteristics and context of a given setting.

Organizations that fail to develop a specialized crisis organization make a design choice as well, often by default. That choice is likely to be suboptimal as most organizations are not designed and have not organically developed in ways that facilitate coping with the extraordinary pressures, information flows and pace associated with crises. Even organizations — such as media and first responder organizations — used to rapid real-time operations may be overwhelmed when the scale, scope, complexity and pace of the operational tempo increases dramatically.

Key challenges include specifying the role of top leadership (do they keep running the everyday organization, the crisis organization or both?), developing surge capacity, developing means of coping with information deficit and overload in periods of acute crisis, cultivating sustainable staffing and stress monitoring functions, among others. Selecting senior and mid-level leaders for crisis management roles is also challenging. Many leaders are promoted on the basis of skills, personality traits and management styles primarily demonstrated and enacted under steady state conditions. Such leaders may, or may not, be equipped by personality, background, previous education and training (see below) for managing effectively in crisis. If, as is often suggested, we are living in increasingly crisis-prone times, it may be that crisis management aptitude should play more of a role in leader selection in general.

Planning (to Improvise)


In much of the literature (and among some practitioners), there is some skepticism about the value of crisis planning. Planning is subject to many pressures, obstacles and constraints that can easily detract from the utility of the planning function and products. As Lee Clarke of Rutgers University pointed out in his provocative book Mission Improbable, there are countless examples of crisis/emergency plans based on flawed assumptions divorced from the reality of crisis operations and resource availability — resulting in so-called fantasy documents. Still, when approached, packaged and implemented properly, planning may have great value.

Vigilant planning proceeds from several key insights discernible in the literature and evolving practice. First, it’s important to distinguish between planning for structured, well understood contingencies (e.g., plane crashes by airports and airlines) as opposed to other relatively less structured and somewhat less familiar challenges (e.g., traffic disruptions associated with volcanic ash clouds). While coping with plane crashes may be facilitated by very detailed, scripted plans that ensure that key actions are resourced and implemented in proper sequence, unexpected challenges require enactment of problem identification and application of creative problem solving.


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