Crisis Management: Crisis Leadership the U.S. Marine Corps Way: Crisis Response
If you are a leader under serious pressure – whether it be product recall, regulatory trouble, management failure, employee violence – you ask yourself (usually in the middle of the night), “How can we survive this adversity?” If you’ve dodged such issues, you worry about whether your organization can cope with incidents of magnitude.
Herewith, I commend to you the wisdom of folks fighting overseas: the United States Marine Corps.
War is the ultimate crisis. Those in battle can teach us civilians how to deal with upheaval. Two unclassified USMC documents on Planning and on Command and Control, are the clearest, no B.S., cut to the chase, resources on crisis management I have ever read.
A retired Marine officer recommended the manuals to me. I came away with these primary philosophies:
- War – read “crisis” – is full of uncertainty, therefore embrace uncertainty
- Be adaptable, flexible, adjust
- Plan and train to accomplish the above
Let me paraphrase the best insights for business leaders from the pages of those USMC papers. For our purposes, I have substituted “crisis” for “war” or “battle.”
Plan. Your crisis plan should establish a chain of command that fixes authority and responsibility at each level.
- It should state a desired outcome, actions to achieve it, and a feedback loop to monitor progress.
- Your goal is not to write the best plan but to achieve the best result.
- A good plan gives direction and flexibility and specifies the minimum amount necessary for execution clearly, simply, and concisely.
- Don’t worry whether the plan unfolds as written but whether it facilitates effective action in the face of unforeseen events.
- It should NOT seek to specify future actions but identify options and possibilities.
- The plan is a starting point not a script.
- Elaborateness and detail are not generally measures of effective plans.
Train. My experience is that even the best plan is only as good as the team that implements it. New Orleans had an outstanding hurricane crisis plan that collapsed under Katrina. That’s a team failure, not a plan failure. That underscores the Marines’ emphasis on training employees to be flexible and adaptable.
Your procedures should:
- Facilitate simplicity and speed
- Be mastered easily and performed quickly and smoothly under extreme stress.
- Crisis drills should purposely include elements of disorder and uncertainty. That will be reality. Speaking of which…
Endure. A crisis will be messy, unpredictable, and often chaotic, defying orderly, efficient and precise control. You must cope with this inherent complexity. It is delusion to believe that you can control the situation. You will be like a predatory animal in a process of continuous adaptation, seeking information, learning, and adjusting in its quest for survival and success: never in a state of stable equilibrium but a continuous state of flux.
Lead. Your goal is not to be thoroughly and precisely in control, but running the situation more akin to the willing participation of a basketball team.
- Organizations operate best when members think of themselves as belonging to one or more groups with loyalty, cooperation, morale, and commitment to the group mission.
- Intuitive decision making is preferable with the leader relying on experience, training, and reflection.
- All decisions must be made in the face of uncertainty. There will always be some knowledge you lack, there is no perfect solution and you should not agonize over one.
- Whoever can make and implement decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage. Adopt a promising scheme with an acceptable degree of risk, and do it quickly.
The Marines repeatedly emphasize that speed is a weapon and quote World War II Army General George S. Patton who said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week. “
When I was in the Navy, veterans warned that safety regulations were written in blood, so obey them. I am certain the U.S. Marines’ command and planning philosophies are too. I invite you to take them to heart as I have.