go-to resources

Presidential Lessons on Leadership in Crisis Management

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Leadership in a crisis involves skills admired in the abstract, but shunned in practice when feathers are flying. In our current moment, crisis leadership too often are AWOL.

In Leadership for Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin traces the evolution of four Presidents from their formative period to the crucible of crisis that defined their legacy. In her narratives about Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin points out the traits that each President employed as he led the nation out of crisis.

The traits she identified from the four presidents are case studies for any leader charged with managing a crisis – careful listening, empathy, thoughtfulness, patience, preparation, dramatic action, humility and personal responsibility. 

Careful Listening: Lincoln surrounded himself with a “team of rivals.” Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt consumed huge volumes of information, but they listened most carefully to human stories. Johnson chose to retain John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet as a sign of respect and ensure he understood the priorities of his predecessor. Listening for all four men was how they learned, especially in a time of crisis when time was the enemy.

Empathy: All four Presidents assumed the role as the representative of Americans at large, not special interests or regional preferences. In their own ways, each President tried to put themselves into the shoes of the soldier, the overworked and underpaid coal miner, the dispossessed farmer and the downtrodden minority. They thirsted for real-life stories that revealed real-life circumstances. From those stories, they developed an empathy that informed and humanized their decision-making.

Thoughtfulness: Each President found a way in the midst of crisis to carve out a space to think. They understood the crisis they faced had both transactional and transformational dimensions. They gave thought to how to address the immediate aspects of crisis while identifying the underlying cause and possible remedies.

Patience: When the Presidents decided on a course of action, they didn’t immediately spring into action. In some cases, they waited for the right moment for public opinion to congeal. In other cases, they took their time to consider options, reactions and precedents. They exercise what you might call creative patience.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Preparation: When a final decision was made, support staff was mobilized to put the necessary steps in place. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps and demanded that 125,000 unemployed and unmarried young men would be recruited, trained and transported to untended American timberlands within months. Few thought it was possible, but it happened because of expert preparation and coordination.

Dramatic Action: In a crisis, actions matter more than words. Sometimes the actions are bold and risky. Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation at a pivotal moment in the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt intervened in a major coal strike. FDR called a special session of Congress to establish new banking regulations. Johnson pushed for passage of the Civil Rights Act. Each dramatic action solidified the perception that these four men were leaders. They were able to accomplish what most people thought impossible – 200,000 new recruits, an arbitrated end to a destabilizing coal strike, federal insurance for bank deposits and the first civil rights legislation of any consequence since the end of the Civil War.

The last two qualities Goodwin identified may be the most important.

Humility: By almost any standard, the Roosevelts and Johnson were not humble. Lincoln came closest to humble, but even he seethed with ambition. In the face of crisis, however, each in their own way displayed humility in service of their objective. Lincoln abided the advice of political opponents. Teddy Roosevelt endured the insufferable attitude of coal company owners. Johnson let GOP Senate Leader Everett Dirksen play the lead role in passage of the Civil Rights Act. These four presidents put their egos in their pockets, at least for a while, to achieve a greater good than could have achieved on their own.

Personal Responsibility. All four Presidents assumed full responsibility for their actions – and the potential for failure. Lincoln’s confidantes warned the emancipation proclamation could redouble the resolve of the Confederacy and led to mass defections from the Union army. Teddy Roosevelt knew his intervention in a strike was outside his constitutional authority. In his fireside chats, FDR admitted some of the policies and programs he initiated were experimental and may not work as intended. Good to his word, Roosevelt modified or ended programs that didn’t work. Johnson was told civil rights legislation would never make it out of a Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers. He told Martin Luther King, Jr. that he could make it happen.

Goodwin’s book focuses on presidential crisis management. However, the principles of effective crisis management don’t change because of different job titles. Any crisis is a fundamental challenge to a reputation, a brand or an identity.

The most significant change in managing a crisis since the eras of Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Johnson has been the advent of the internet, digital media and smartphones. Time is an even greater enemy to a smart response to a crisis.

The only known antidote is more thoughtful advance preparation that includes identifying potential crisis scenarios, go-to resources and an internal crisis team leader. Preparation also should include updated contact lists, a trained media spokesperson and a ghost website with information and imagery that can be shared immediately.

What Goodwin’s treatise on leadership teaches is the imperative of CEO involvement in crisis management. Only the CEO can provide the moral authority as well as the administrative approval for bold crisis responses. Only the CEO can speak for an entire organization, including its consumers, stakeholders and employees affected by the crisis and the response. Only the CEO can see beyond the crisis to the future. Only the CEO can invoke the mission and purpose of an organization as guidance for every person involved in a crisis response.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 


Managing an Issue Requires Mastering It First

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Mastering an issue is the first step toward managing the issue. If you don’t understand an issue forwards and backwards, you will have a hard time marching forward or avoiding an attack from the rear.

When issues explode, the first instinct is to jump in to douse the fire. Too often, how you douse the fire can make the conflagration worse, not better, with deadly results. Knowing how to address a chemical exposure can mean the difference between harming or detoxifying a firefighter.

The confusion surrounding a crisis allows little time for homework, which is why preparing in advance for an issue meltdown is so important. That’s the only way to have the time it takes to master an issue.

To master an issue requires understanding what could go wrong. If you operate a restaurant, food security is critical. Where is the food you serve to customers sourced? Who inspects your food supplies, especially if you are buying fresh food from local sources? What are your food security protocols when supplies are delivered, refrigerated and checked for freshness?

If you think that is too much, think for a moment about Chipotle’s continuing brand challenge because it couldn’t get a handle on what was causing its customers to get sick.

More Valuable CFM Resources

More Valuable CFM Resources

Issue mastery involves documenting what you know and do. Sticking with the restaurant example, it would be smart to create a video showing the proper procedures for accepting food deliveries, storing food and handling its preparation to serve to customers. The video could be used for employee training or as a checklist to follow if a food contamination incident occurs. The video could be B-roll to share with the media tracking a food contamination story or content that can be quickly posted to a website.

In the process of mastering an issue, organizations can discover holes in the preparation or flaws in their facilities. A manufacturer may learn that emergency responders aren’t versed or trained on how to combat an environmental spill in their plant. Playing out a crisis scenario may reveal something basic like a circuit breaker is located inside a building where chemical processing occurs that could be interrupted by a power outage. Far-fetched? Not really. Both of those shortcomings were uncovered after an incident in a Portland-area manufacturing facility.

Mastery of an issue goes beyond technical knowledge. It means knowing who you can contact in a crisis to get information, an analysis of the facts and recommendations on how to address a specific issue. Advance planning is good, but never perfect. It is hard to know precisely what underground tank will leak, what company official will be outed as an embezzler or what employee will do something disgusting on a social media post. Go-to resources might include a hydrologist, a forensic accountant and a crisis communications expert.

Like most activity, mastery requires practice. Baseball hitters have batting practice. Issue managers should have crisis training exercises. A crisis plan can be just pages full of words. They need to become a process that can be quickly launched, smoothly undertaken and easily adapted to circumstances on the ground. A great example is the crisis team in a Seattle company that thought it had all its bases covered, but when it underwent an exercise, company officials sadly overlooked little details – like a crisis situation room equipped with outdated computers and bad Wi-Fi connectivity.

Issue mastery doesn’t include writing vacuous statements in advance. It should include clear responsibilities for who will be the fact-checker, who can write meaningful statements for press releases or Twitter posts and who can get statements cleared through the command hierarchy of an organization. Saying nothing isn’t useful. Saying something pertinent is useful when it is said in a timely manner.

Because the world doesn’t stand still, issue mastery demands continuous learning. New challenges arise that must be anticipated. New facts are established that must be considered. New players enter the field – from competitors to regulators – that must be taken into account.

Mastery of an issue isn’t evident unless the crisis spokesperson is capable to reflect it. Different kinds of crisis can require different types of spokespersons. Regardless how many spokespersons you have, they need to undergo thorough communications training. They need to learn how to project issue mastery through their words and body language.

One final dimension of issue mastery is comprehending who will care the most about an issue. Injecting an audience-centric perspective into issue mastery will help ensure you master the facts and externalities that matter to people impacted most directly by the issue. If your database is hacked, the customers or clients on that database will want to know what was compromised and what they can do about it. If a truck crashes spilling toxic chemicals, nearby residents, schools and businesses will care about how big the spill is, how far it spread and the dangers it poses.

Mastering an issue takes time. Waiting for a crisis to do your homework is usually too late. Seize the one advantage you have – the luxury of time to understand an issue thoroughly, identify potential resources to call in a crisis and train one or more spokespersons on how to deliver an effective message that conveys confidence you know what you are doing.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.