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Leading When It Counts

By Dee Soder, PhD

Management at all levels needs to understand how to act during and, especially, after a crisis.

Dee Soder

sk anyone who has experienced a crisis and they’ll tell you what counts is the way the people in charge acted. Leadership behavior is an essential element of business recovery.


Natural disasters, terrorism, workplace violence, corporate malfeasance, suicide, faulty products—every crisis has unique circumstances. Boards and management also differ widely. Yet an informal survey of more than 30 directors reveals amazingly similar views. A few perceived the board’s role as limited, but most believed the board should be more involved as part of its risk management

The behavior of leaders during and after a crisis has received relatively little attention, planning or board oversight. Without such guidance, some leaders handle crises superbly and others fail—at times, dramatically, as evidenced during Katrina. Directors and top executives need to plan for the “people side,” the psychological aspects of a crisis, as an integral part of business continuity. Management at all levels needs to understand how to act during and, especially, after a crisis.

responsibilities. Several prominent directors emphasized the “need to think more broadly” about crises such as difficulties resulting from a chief executive’s sudden death, lost data/security breach, and so on..

The accelerating number of devastating situations over the last ten years has necessitated better business continuity measures and management knowledge. As national, regional, local and company-specific crises become more common, directors need to ensure the efficacy of management’s plans, and the behaviors that expedite recovery. As was so clearly demonstrated after 9/11, leadership behavior is essential to recovery— to clean up, console, plan and rebuild. Positive and negative examples of leadership behavior after 9/11 will come readily to mind for most of us.

Board differences and unique circumstances aside, there is general agreement on lessons to be learned regarding behavior. Primary ones follow:

Review disaster plans to ensure that behavior is explicitly considered

Think about the “not likely to happen” events. Could directions be ignored if the boss is new or disliked? How should scared, crying and distraught people be handled? What if fighting starts?

What about “outsiders” who happen to be there at a critical time? (For example, in the midst of a power failure, a client was “lost” for several hours at one company.)

Double check that your continuity plans work. And test them. Just as one client uses a former CIA official to test corporate security, companies may wish to have an outsider test their crisis management plans.

This year, a New York City-based media company assigned interns the task of developing “what if” scenarios. IBM executives have used drills for years, complete with “wild card incidents” to test their system. Whatever the actual method, directors should have a yearly, complete presentation of continuity plans, ensuring that disaster drills consider unlikely events and behavior.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Good communication strategies consider peoples’ emotions and attitudes. Messages should be simple, clear, consistent, and tailored to the audience. Repeat messages—people often don’t hear it the first or second time. Be readily accessible, provide support and “stay on message.” Consider media

Boardroom Brieng: Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery

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