Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Can leaders cry in a crisis?

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Can leaders cry in a crisis?Crisis Response from archives

How tough should a leader be during a crisis? When you’re in charge and all around you is crashing must you always keep a stiff upper lip, maintain control, exude confidence, stifle anger, restrain emotions, and reassure others that you intend to prevail?

That question has intrigued me since hurricane Katrina. During the horrific aftermath we saw many leaders emotionally out of control. The Louisiana governor cried, the New Orleans mayor cursed and demanded action, the police chief standing in the post-apocalyptic Superdome begged for help, and a parish president suffered a meltdown on Meet the Press.

Shortly after Katrina I showed video clips of some of these instances to about 40 state police PR veterans. I wanted their reactions and specifically what crisis management steps they thought would have prevented the hell we all witnessed. As expected, the officers were disgusted and disappointed, NOT at the crisis failures, but at the leaders who fell apart.

Surprised at their seeming lack of compassion, I asked for a show of hands and almost all agreed that the leaders should not have come unglued in front of their followers and the nation. Somewhat dismayed, I asked the group what they would have done while overwhelmed in a similar catastrophe, exhausted by 24/7 work, and confronted by reporters. Universally they said that if they could not pull themselves together, they would step aside and let someone else speak until they could regain self-control. These experienced state policemen firmly insisted a leader should inspire confidence and be in command while conveying information. Anything less is failure.

A few officers quietly admitted to me that if they had been in the Katrina chaos they might have found it emotionally hard. Yet they maintained that since their earliest days in uniform their training was to hold it together while leading during a crisis.

A few days later I likewise questioned my brother-in-law, a retired police officer who led the SWAT, K-9 and Dive Teams as well as Harbor Patrol during his 30 year career. He echoed the state police. He said, as a leader, if you find yourself without the resources you need, you do NOT publicly complain. You find a way to make it work. Period.

In the weeks since the early post-Katrina fiasco myriad leaders managed difficult rebuilding challenges plus hurricane Rita and the snarled Houston evacuation. Almost all were calm and reassuring. Of course, none spoke from a packed, stench-filled, crime-ridden, water, food and sanitation deprived Superdome or convention center lined with bodies in a city with neighborhoods flooded to rooftops.

Personally, I was angry after the storm, not at leaders’ communication collapses, but at the local, state, and federal inaction that fueled the cries for help. I saw the leaders’ emotions as an extension of the citizens losing their cool during hot days without relief as old and young died and most suffered. Strong feelings seemed to fit.

The state police saw the leaders another way. No matter how bad the situation, those at the top must inspire. If they can’t, who will? The point’s important. Consider our troops under fire in Afghanistan. Where would they be if commanders suffered meltdowns and endangered their lives? Leaders must find a way to make it work. It’s their duty. We want their empathy, and indeed sympathy, but doesn’t duty trump all?

So, the answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph is Yes – most of the time. Leaders should try to hang tough under fire. We choose them or follow them because we need their protection and direction and are persuaded they will provide it and keep us safe.

However, there is the rare case where the horror is so great that remaining cool would be almost superhuman and perhaps perceived as uncaring. Hurricane Katrina was an extraordinarily punishing experience for tens of thousands. In such cases, leaders should strive to be strong but not lose their humanity.

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