During a crisis, leaders must be able to adapt and operate in an uncertain environment. In doing so, leaders are required to make more consequential and challenging decisions with less information and less time to decide. They also have fewer options to consider and likely garner more scrutiny for their actions. This examination of key case studies provides current leaders with lessons learned from effective and ineffective leadership decisions in the past.
Crisis leadership involves making decisions, sometimes life or death decisions, with limited or incomplete information. For example, the Obama Administration’s decision in 2011 to go after Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan was based on incomplete information in that the CIA could not confirm with certainty that Bin Laden was in the compound. If the raid had gone wrong – in addition to the potential for U.S. casualties – the fallout would have consumed the remainder of President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Information & Time Limitations
In another example of presidential crisis decision-making, on 9/11, President George W. Bush authorized the military to shoot down commercial aircraft if necessary. The president initially thought that Flight 93 may have been shot down based on his order, but he later learned that the passengers stormed the cockpit as hijackers flew the plane toward Washington, D.C.
During a crisis, there is limited time to decide and implement a course of action. Classic examples of this include the decision (or indecision) to evacuate due to hurricanes, wildfires, or other disasters. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did not order a mandatory evacuation of the city until less than 24 hours before the storm’s landfall. That decision likely resulted in further loss of life according to the Congressional Committee tasked with investigating Katrina. On the contrary, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s decision to land his plane on the Hudson River serves a more recent and immediate example of crisis decision-making that resulted in lives saved. As these examples demonstrate, time is fleeting during a crisis.
In addition to having limited information and limited time to decide, there are often fewer options during a crisis. In many cases, leaders must make binary yes or no decisions and do not have the benefit of multiple options to consider. For example, during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had to decide whether to release images of the subjects. Releasing the images could have aided the investigation, but it might have also forced the bombers to flee or strike again knowing that authorities were closing in. However, not releasing them would have meant that the FBI was withholding a critical piece of evidence and possibly putting the public at greater risk. Ultimately, the FBI decided to release the images, at least in part because the media and amateur sleuths were already crowdsourcing their own images. In fact, the New York Post wrongly identified two “suspects” on its cover, further prompting the FBI to release images of the Tsarnaev brothers. Incidentally, the New York Post ultimately settled a lawsuit brought by the two people who were wrongly identified.
Depending on the size and scope of the crisis, leaders can also expect a great deal of scrutiny from the media, the public, and various oversight bodies. The Flint Water Crisis, which began in 2014, is a case study in this type of intense scrutiny. There has been tremendous public outcry associated with the water crisis, and Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and numerous other public officials have been subject to intense media scrutiny. There have also been congressional hearings, investigations, and even criminal charges associated with the crisis.
Applying a Leadership Concept to Future Crises
A crisis upsets the status quo and pushes leaders to their limits, but leaders can rely on a variety of crisis leadership concepts. Harvard’s meta-leadership concept is one worth exploring. Meta-leadership involves three components. The first component is emotional intelligence – understanding self and how to come out of the “emotional basement” during a crisis. The second aspect of meta-leadership is the ability to “size-up” a situation, often with limited or incomplete information. The final component is connectivity, or multi-directional leadership, to include leading down the formal chain of command, up to supervisors, across to peer organizations, and beyond to outside entities. Meta-leadership is a proven framework that can help leaders to better navigate a crisis.
Regarding decision making with limited information, leaders should also keep Colin Powell’s “40-70 rule” in mind. Powell, a retired four-star general and former U.S. Secretary of State, believes that leaders need to make decisions when they have 40%-70% of the available facts and information. Accordingly, anything less than 40% of the information is not enough to make a decision, but waiting until there is more than 70% would only delay the decision-making process and could result in missed opportunities. Powell contends that leaders need to have intuition and trust their instincts once they feel like they have reached the 40%-70% threshold.
Doing more with less is never easy, but it is particularly challenging when it comes to crisis leadership and the decision-making process. However, the good news is that there are crisis leadership concepts to consider and skills that can be developed to better position leaders to survive, and thrive, during a crisis.
Terry Hastings is the senior policy advisor for the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES) and an adjunct professor for the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York at Albany. He oversees the DHSES policy and program development unit and a variety of statewide programs and initiatives.