by Steve Adubato, PhD
The recent blackout, which wreaked havoc on the lives of millions, has provided countless lessons, particularly when it comes to taking things for granted. While technological and utility based problems will hopefully be addressed, thereby helping us to avoid such a crisis in the future, some other important lessons can be learned involving leadership and communication. In any crisis, most people affected are looking for understandable and helpful information from those in charge. Fortunately, President Bush, Governor McGreevey as well as other government leaders provided this needed information during a critical 24-hour period.
So what else are people looking for from their leaders in a crisis?
--A leader who is accessible and highly visible. When the Exxon incident happened over a decade ago in Alaska, the company's CEO was nowhere to be found. He chose to delegate the communication role to subordinates. Big mistake. Conversely, we saw President Bush, Governor's McGreevey and Pataki, as well as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg out front and in charge. Seeing a leader with your own eyes telling you exactly what is going on can never be underestimated.
--Leaders should communicate exactly what they know and avoid speculating. Sergeant Joe Friday from the 1960's hit series "Dragnet" had it right when he would say, "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts." During a crisis, verifiable facts are hard to come by amidst rumors and hearsay. Leaders and team members should work to confirm information and only then communicate what they know to be true. Speculation only causes unnecessary confusion and anxiety.
--If you don't know, say so. For example, during the blackout, telling people that the lights will go on at a particular time when you are actually not sure is not only dangerous, but it is not helpful. While people are looking for positive news in a crisis, leaders shouldn't raise false hopes. It's best to say something like, "Everyone involved is working hard to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. Once we have a clear sense of when the problem will be resolved, we will let you know immediately."
--Demeanor matters. During a crisis, the body language, attire and overall appearance of those in charge is important. If our leaders look nervous, it makes us nervous. That was what people most appreciated about Rudy Giuliani after September 11. While he was clearly deeply effected by what had happened, you sensed that he had an inner calm and a resolve to help us get through the tragedy. His demeanor communicated that on a consistent basis.
--Great leaders must show empathy in a crisis. For example, in the midst of the blackout consider what it might have been like in a dark, un-air-conditioned subway car without any sense of when you are getting out. The key is for any leader or manager to look at the crisis through the eyes of those most affected and make decisions and communicate with this picture in mind. Doing this will keep you focused on what is really important and not distract you as you are surrounded by chaos and confusion.
--Finally, let everyone know we are all in this together. What was heartening during the blackout was how leaders acknowledged and thanked average citizens for staying calm as well as not taking advantage of a bad situation (i.e., looting). Leaders who speak about "we" and "us" understand that they are part of a much larger group of people who are impacted by a crisis. The more people feel they face a situation together, the more likely they are to be part of the solution.