Five Myths of Crisis Leadership

Harry Hutson & Martha Johnson, Authors, Navigating an Organizational Crisis: When Leadership Matters Most

Five Myths of Crisis Leadership

Leaders are confronted with a daily barrage of demands and decisions. It's hard to step back and consider the possibility of disasters. Some wonder if such thinking is morbid and fatalistic. But under it all, leaders hold on to myths that keep them from being properly prepared.

For our book, Navigating an Organizational Crisis: When Leadership Matters Most, we interviewed dozens of leaders of organizations that survived disasters—the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the financial meltdown of 2008, deaths of employees, and more. After telling us their stories, they would often become reflective and offer their hard–won lessons. We’ve distilled their advice into five myths of crisis leadership—wrong-headed notions that get in the way of recovery if not survival.

MYTH #1: It'll never happen to us. 

The military coined the acronym VUCA to describe our day and age: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. Sound familiar? Our word is DANGER. Pretending that your organization is immune from the realities of modern life verges on negligence.

MYTH #2: I'll be fine.

The leaders we interviewed were not “fine.” Some still live with the traumatic memories of long-past events. They were touched, changed, rattled, and deeply affected. Pretending to be above the fray and immune from pain eroded their effectiveness and impeded their recovery.

MYTH #2: I'll make sure I reassure people.

Prompt truth telling is crucial in crises. The truth may be painful, at first, but it’s the kind of hurt that heals. Employees can handle the truth—actually they crave it. If their leaders do not deliver it, they know, and they will not be reassured by happy talk or vague promises.

Rod West was the operational executive at Entergy Corporation responsible for turning the lights back on in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In a remarkable interview he spoke to us about meeting with his crews after surveying the flooded city from a helicopter. The tension in the room was acute. People pounded him with questions about their neighborhoods.

In a moment of abject honesty, West told them, “The city is under water. So for most of you, everything you left at home is destroyed." He rallied workers by leveling with them; they proceeded to do their jobs and save the city.

MYTH #4: My proven ability to make tough decisions will pull me through.

In an emergency, the leader has to make rapid decisions and give quick logistical direction. But there’s more to it. When an organization is clobbered it soon segues from asking what just happened to what do we do with what just happened. People wonder about the meaning of it all.

Yusufi Vali was the young leader of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center during the Boston Marathon bombing. He became the de facto spokesperson for the Boston Muslim community. In that capacity he found reporters’ questions coming his way ranged from one extreme (is your community complicit?) to the other (are you being victimized by the situation?)

Vali chose to make his response about how they were all Bostonians together. He would not fall into the game of speaking as if his community was some "other" group: "I imagine myself now as part of the city... trying to speak ... as a Bostonian." On the back of an incomprehensible crime Vali communicated in a way that enabled his community to move forward in unison with the City and nation. 

When leaders author organizational purpose and direction for organizations, they exert their most powerful form of authority—more lasting in importance than being decisive in the moment.

MYTH #5:  There's really not much I can do to prepare myself for the unknown.  

We believe self-knowledge is the best preparation for leadership in a crisis. Get clear about your pre-resilience—the strengths you already have at hand, your bread-and-butter moves when the chips are down. To know your behavioral patterns when you’re under pressure is to be for-armed.

As an exercise in preparation for the unknown, think of painful personal moments when the rug was pulled out from under you. Remember that job rejection or that moment you heard about an accident involving a loved-one. Then remember your response. What pattern do you see? Study your behaviors. Know yourself better now, so you can have more confidence in your reactions when there’s no time to think.

Leaders sabotage themselves when they fail to examine their assumptions about crises.

Bottom line: Crises happen, but you can take steps to limit the damage.

About the Authors

A 25-year veteran in senior human resources and leadership and development roles in four multinational companies, Harry Hutson is now an independent consultant. He has passion for talent development, change management, organizational integration, and—most of all—finding a way when people feel lost or confused and tough choices need to be made. He lives in Chapel Hill, NC and teaches classes in Executive Education and the MBA Program at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina.  

Martha Johnson is a leadership expert who draws on the lessons she learned as an executive with a more than 35-year career in business and government. Johnson is former Administrator of the General Services Administration under President Obama and also served for eight years in the Clinton Administration. Her private sector career has spanned the information technology, architecture, strategic consulting, and automotive industries.