London’s 7/7 demonstrated once again that in times of crisis, great leadership quickly shows up and guides the way out of chaos and confusion. We expected it of the formal political leaders, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston. They came through admirably with their uplifting and defiant oratory and calls to action. We saw it, as we did during 9/11, in the thousands of small acts of courage by emergency personnel and ordinary people rescuing and comforting the injured. What is at work here in these moments of greatness?
Let’s assume that the definition of a crisis is being jolted out of our comfort zone. The true meaning of course is in the eyes of the beholder. One person’s crisis may not faze another. Nevertheless, we’ll assume that the situation is either life- or organizationally-threatening. The solution to the crisis cannot be found in the status quo. We must draw on something else to light the way out.
Robert Quinn, author of Building the Bridge As You Walk On It, claims that “leaders do their best work when they don’t copy anyone. They draw on their own values and capabilities”. In moments of crisis, they enter a “fundamental state of leadership” that is temporarily out of their comfort zone.
Quinn outlines four steps for great leadership in a crisis:
1. Get clear on the results you’d like to create;
2. Let your own internal direction be your guide;
3. Be other directed—sacrifice your personal interests for the common good;
4. Pay deep attention to what is unfolding and learn from it as you go.
When the situation is a matter of life or death, seconds count in the immediate aftermath of a sudden unexpected crisis. Whether leadership and personal survival kicks in, as described by Quinn, depends on how well we manage our automatic biological response.
According to researchers such as John Leach from Lancaster University in England who study human behaviour in dangerous situations, only 10 to 15 percent of people remain calm, figure out a plan and lead others. The same number---approximately 10 to 15 percent---screams and cries uncontrollably. Approximately 75 percent “will be stunned, bewildered and show impaired reasoning and sluggish thinking”. The feeling of being out of control clearly overwhelms the majority of people in the unfamiliar catastrophic circumstance. Fight or flight gives rise to “freeze”. Yet a small percentage over-rides the panic and swings into action. Why?
Emergency training and prior experience in surviving a crisis appear to be key factors. The mental maps derived from the lessons of survival significantly boost our chances of finding our way out of a catastrophic situation and stepping into the zone of leadership. Drills and rehearsals really do work but we have not always been the best students. How many people really pay attention on an airplane to the directions about the emergency exits and what to do with air bags, etc.? In that we compute the unlikelihood of a catastrophe occurring in our lives, we play “Russian roulette” and ignore the “mental mapping”. Yet, it is this preparation that can call up the great leader in each of us and save our life and potentially those of many others.
This preparedness of mindset is a pre-requisite to leading organizational crises as much as a sudden personal one. If emergency training and previous experience helps, then it follows that we can better that 10 to 15 percent showing leadership during times of great duress. We can develop our potential to be great leaders by preparing ourselves mentally in advance. We can use the lessons of survival conduct in emergencies to help more of us live in our discomfort zones with great success when needed. In so doing, we can make a profound impact on our collective well-being.
There’s another kind of preparedness---preventing or reducing the risk of a catastrophe in the first place. And, there’s nothing like eyes and ears “on the ground” to increase the probability of offsetting a possible disaster. Herein lies the real measure of great leadership in these complex times—engaging many, particularly the front line, in leading the way.
We’ve done it for years with programs such as “Neighbourhood Watch” and other grassroots efforts. More recently, “Amber Alerts” for missing children have generated many successes. We’ve learned from disasters such as 9/11, SARS and the water quality meltdown in Walkerton, Ontario that the right information-gathering and sharing across “silos” as well as top notch management and supervision (meaning---accountability) would have averted or minimized the unfolding of events. Great leadership is therefore not that complicated—being a “first preventer” is always better than being a “first responder”.