Leadership in Crises: Remembering 9/11

On the anniversary of a life-, and world-changing disaster, I’ve prepared a list of leadership qualities undoubtedly demonstrated on that fateful day in 2001. Like any earth-shaking crisis, memories of where we were and how we felt are vivid for those alive and witness to the tragedy. However, the specific behaviors of the many heroes of that day and event are probably not as vivid for you. Details blur with the overwhelming fear and flood of emotion. This is truly the way that day should be remembered, in our souls – not our heads. But there are notable actions that should be tucked into our memories. Behaviors that saved lives and souls.

This essay is devoted to the heroism of those selfless men and women who paid the ultimate price to save others. May they be forever remembered.

A definition of leadership

One definition of leadership is that leaders reduce uncertainty. This is especially true in crises or disasters. Strong leadership is of paramount importance through crises where lives are at risk and nothing is dependable. No disaster plan can fully prepare for either the particulars or gravity of a catastrophic event. Regrettably, crises and disasters of natural or manmade nature are becoming more common. It’s not a matter of if one will be impacted, but when. As such, leadership through crisis should be a part of every leader’s skillset.

Guidelines and toolkits for managing through disasters have been developed by humanitarian agencies – and they have made a substantial, positive impact. However, as the relatively “obvious” aspects of disasters (infrastructure, rescues, command centers, etc.) these have received more attention than deeper wounds. I’m not against the need for water and shelter, but the psychological impact of such catastrophes can be life-long and warrants improvement. In fact, psychologists have already addressed the psychological factors most prevalent in crises. Here I specifically address some of the primary psychological considerations for leadership in crises. (Note: This is NOT an exhaustive list. There is evidence supporting these behaviors, but this is a guide, not a prescription.)

Leadership Needs in Major Disasters

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful framework for “need triage” in major disasters. For most, it’s only during life-changing crises that we are reduced to the most basic of human needs – physiological. For others, this stage of need is chronic. While there are similarities between event-based need states of decimation and chronic need states, the differences are greater. Chronic crises are not the topic here.

The physiological needs characterizing the most fundamental stage of Maslow’s model are clearly the most important and urgent. These define life or death. The immediate treatment for these needs is more about survival than psychological well-being. Psychological factors are absolutely present at this stage, but I do not address them here. These are better for clinicians, both medical and psychological, to address. Leadership is less in demand when biological survival is at risk.

Unlike physiological needs, safety needs are not as easily addressed, and their remediation is not as clear. Psychological security and health are obviously challenged in times of crisis, but we are much less prepared or effective in properly attending to them as the vital, observable and relatively quickly addressed physiological needs. These aren’t overlooked, but the means of dealing with matters of psychological nature is complex, frequently requiring scarce, specialized services that require more time.

Beyond medical or serious clinical needs, leadership is paramount to allay fear and promote psychological safety. The behaviors most effective in times of crisis are not completely different from those typical of comprehensive leadership, but the situation calls for very different use.

In no particular order, the following leadership competencies are recognized by psychologists with additions from myself as being especially important when guiding an organization, or any group or person, through major crisis.

  • Resilience – You’ve heard it, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” No amount of preparation or resolve will work if you don’t. Do whatever it takes to insure or regain your physical and mental well-being. You will attract attention like never before, and it will be remembered. Every move should say “I have control.”
  • Decisiveness – Crises are no time for a census. Decisions must be taken with speed and confidence. These times call for a more concentrated, reassuring source of power that people expect from their authorities.
  • Integrity – Here I mean consistency of behavior more than moral integrity. In a crisis people’s ability to process information is dramatically curtailed. It’s important to send consistent, even predictable, messaging (via action and word) to make things as easy to understand as possible. Radical changes in direction can add to the psychological challenges already at work. Hold the line, as it’s said.
  • Clear direction – As stress limits psychological well-being and functioning, guidance must be provided at a more granular level. The environment is threatening and unfamiliar; step-by-step guidance is frequently necessary.
  • Justice – It is critical that leaders enforce and maintain equitable treatment through crises. Similar to integrity, human expectations of fairness and consistency should be met with just behavior. Together, acting with integrity and justice conveys a reassuring message of control over the situation.
  • Inclusion – This does not negate the need for authoritative control but does temper it. By including others, some who will disagree, a leader entertains a broader set of options. This is important to avoid potentially erroneous “self-generated validity of thinking” and builds acceptance with key constituents.
  • Compassion – This isn’t the time to get “mushy” but subtle acts that stem from a mindset of compassion are especially noticeable among the victims of disasters – and they benefit from it.
  • Presence – Here I mean just show up. The adage, “misery loves company,” bears merit when disaster strikes. If you were not directly impacted by the disaster, go to it. Nothing is as reassuring as “being there” for someone.

There are many more that could be included, and I could have been more efficient via a shorter list. It may not be perfect, but perfection isn’t my goal.

These simply represent a list of potential use to us all, hopefully well before necessary.

Why picky selection is even more important when pickins are slim

Duck, duck, goose: be careful with selection

We’ve been here before. In the late 90s the demand for technical talent was so great that organizations engaged in bidding wars simply to stay in business. Dubbed the War for Talent, management experts warned about the perils of relaxing standards for the selection of talent at such time as when organizations were in the most need. For most, it was too late.

Fierce negotiations and skyrocketing compensation packages were the talent-based equivalent of surging petrol prices during the great oil embargo of the 70s. For some, no amount of money could buy the talent so desperately needed. They were stuck with what they had - and what they didn’t.

Here we go again.

With unemployment rates at historic lows, organizations once again find themselves confronted by the fool’s choice: bad (or, expensive) talent or no talent? (Ironic, isn’t it, that the same organization that matches employees’ contributions to retirement plans and maintains a succession plan for top executives with two “ready” candidates, finds itself overspent and understaffed on talent?)

From a safe distance we can see the folly of hiring at a time of dire need, just like we can see the wisdom of contributing to a compounding savings fund for future financial needs. Nevertheless, the firestorm of desperation hiring burns the fuel for future growth. I see it all the time: buying at the peak of the market and selling at the first sign of a lull.

Regardless of how we got here, we must face reality. Hires must be made. Sticking with reality, that hire is going to cost you more, now that you need them, than they would’ve when you didn’t {seem to} need them so desperately. You have a choice, pay big bucks for some body or paying big bucks for the right body. The difference between the two hangs on the rigor of your hiring practice. Do you have the skill to assess talent well? Do you have the discipline to select only the well qualified?

Selection using proper psychological assessment is like pan-seared salmon; it’s both rare and well done.

Some will claim that I’m out of touch with what really happens on the streets of Poughkeepsie. After all, I am at that “safe distance” from the action. Don’t I know about fundamental economic principles of supply and demand? Don’t I understand the lunacy of forgoing business for lack of workers?

Actually, I do. And it’s still wrong to relax hiring practices or standards – especially when desperate for employees.

Desperation is a symptom, not the cause. When an organization finds itself desperate for employees, for any reason, whether surging sales or shrinking productivity, it’s the result of poor talent management and planning. The organization isn’t ready. And when an organization isn’t ready, it’s missing out on profits. Economics 101.

You don’t have time for bad firemen when Rome is burning.

But here’s why a bad hire in bad markets (sales or labor) is worse than the same hire in kinder markets. You don’t have time for bad firemen when Rome is burning. Moreover, the damage of retaining a bad hire can be seemingly apocalyptic.

Hiring talent is like a setting fishhook; it’s easy to put in but difficult to yank out.

I’ve made my case for “front end” selection, but dealing with the “back end” of desperation hiring is worse. Hiring talent is like a setting fishhook; it’s easy to put in but difficult to yank out. And it creates considerable collateral damage. A bad hire is lame at best; lethal at worst. And that doesn’t include the joys of their removal.

Two large-scale studies I did in an organization comprised of multi-unit restaurants revealed convergent results. The first found that 50% of all employees that quit did so due to their "brow beating, denigrating, micro-managing boss." {My words to approximate the emotional translation} Even if this number is inflated by sore quitters taking a free jab at their boss, it still dwarfs any other reason given for quitting, including pay and promotion opportunity. The second study found that using a validated personality test successfully predicted which new hire restaurant managers became high producers (i.e., greater sales) and better leaders (i.e., well run, low employee turnover).

But there is a limitation in my research. While the results suggest that good leaders get good results and have low team defection, the story may be more truthful centering on bad leaders that get bad results and have high team defection. Either way you look at it the results are in the same ballpark. It is possible that the bad managers pull the lion's share of the results of this study, thus lending stronger support to my argument against hiring questionable talent.

At the end of the day, you have a decision to make. It would be a mistake not to have good selection.