Lessons in crisis preparedness and leadership

It was pure coincidence: three days prior to the tragic Boston Marathon bombing of April 15th, 2013 I was invited by the Program on Crisis Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to lead a workshop for students and practitioners. I shared with them the challenges, failures, and successes I experienced in leading crisis task forces. Among the many lessons that I learned, seven stand out in the field of crisis preparedness and leadership.

1.    Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s words encapsulate the risk inherent in crisis preparedness. A lot of effort goes into making sure that organizations have plans to respond to unexpected and damaging events. But, as students of military science discover early on, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” (Marshall Helmut von Moltke). What is hence crucial are not the plans that you have put into nice binders, but the time and effort that you and your staff have invested in planning, in examining the “What ifs” and implementing the appropriate training.

 2.    Simplicity and agility are force multipliers

The effectiveness of responses to sudden and disruptive events (crises) largely depends upon the ability of the leadership of an organization to transform itself rapidly into an agile crisis management team. In situations characterized by uncertainty, complexity, and high velocity, the use of simple instruments increases the effectiveness of a crisis team. Unlike “First responders” (firefighters, emergency room specialists or policemen/women) or workers in “High Reliability Organizations” (such as air traffic control systems, naval aircraft carriers, or nuclear power plants) who are specifically trained, a large number of executives are often inadequately prepared to face a crisis. Moreover, they have to use complex protocols and procedures that are often useless in times of need. Consequently, in devising a crisis organization, remember first that the best system is often the simplest one. Second, increase the agility and flexibility of the organization by following the distinctive features of Special Forces: “The key is not to produce specific answers to explicit threats, but to build broad flexible capabilities to meet the uncertain, shifting nature of the challenge“ (Capstone concept for special operations, US Special Operation Command).

 3.    Never underestimate the severity of a crisis

Recognizing the signs of a developing crisis is a complicated endeavor. Even a major security incident may appear benign at the outset. Humankind also has a natural tendency to deny the severity of a problem or a challenging situation it is about to face. The main task of a crisis leader is therefore to avoid this pitfall by reacting decisively. It is better to activate your crisis organization and, if necessary, to “over-deploy” assets at the first signs of an impending crisis than to wait and lose control of the situation.

 4.    The first question is not “what shall we do?” but “what is the problem?”

When we face a novel and unexpected situation, we intuitively tend to look for immediate measures to address it. Diverting manpower to analyze the problem seems an inefficient allocation of time and resources. Nothing could be more wrong and dangerous. Activism brings a false sense of confidence. It bears the risk of missing the big picture and running in the wrong direction. «Nous sommes pressés, asseyons-nous!» (We are in a hurry, let’s sit down!). This is a pertinent lesson taught in French military schools. In the first hour of the crisis, while emergency measures are implemented, the crisis leader must ask his team (or part of it) to analyze the problem. This process will allow him/her to determine the range of issues, prioritize them, define the goals to reach, and assign a team leader for each one. The priority of the first hour is to ask the “what & why” questions. The “how” questions will be addressed later on.

 5.    The first 2 hours are the only 2 hours

In the first two hours of a crisis, a leader has to show confidence, calmness, and credibility in order to help his/her staff regain balance. A proven way to achieve this result is to install rapidly what the military calls a “battle rhythm,” a process to facilitate the sharing of information, the co-ordination of activities and decision-making. It goes further than the usual set of checklists that covers a series of tasks to perform or procedures to follow (i.e. activating the emergency notification system, setting-up your crisis room, putting your rapid deployment teams on standby). The battle rhythm helps regulate the flow of information and determine the sequence of crisis meetings, giving everyone a sense of order in a chaotic situation. It allows you to “set the stage” and enable the different branches of your crisis organization to perform effectively.

 6.    Project yourself into the future and look back

How will your actions be perceived months after the crisis has been resolved? As English historian C. V. Wedgwood wrote: “History is lived forwards but it is written in retrospect.” Hasty measures could be comforting and seem appropriate in the heat of the moment, but could prove disastrous in hindsight. When devising your strategy either to “enter” the crisis, to solve the issues, or to plan your exit, project yourself in the future and look back. Go back and forth and ask yourself whether you will be able to justify your actions months after the crisis is resolved.

 7.    In crisis, manage your energy not your stress

In time of crisis, your worst enemy is fatigue. Numerous studies have shown that a lack of sleep during an extended period of time decreases individual and team performance, hampers decision-making and judgment, and therefore poses significant risks. The temptation to remain on top of the situation and control everything is hard to resist. A disciplined mind is required to cope with this challenge. During crises and emergencies, I found more efficient and rewarding to manage my energy, than my stress. In doing so, I applied the practices and rituals recommended by authors Stephen R. Covey[1] and Tony Schwartz[2], which show the value of nurturing and balancing your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy. As a crisis leader, maintaining and building up personal and team resilience is not only desirable, it is an imperative. 

Christian Dussey is a Fellow at The Weatherhead Center For International Affairs at Harvard University, and former Head of the Crisis Management Center of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @DusseyCh

[1] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press, 2004

[2] Tony Schwartz, Catherine McCarthy, Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time, Harvard Business Review, October 2007