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.