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The Pathology of Leadership Error in Crisis

Self-Inflicted Leadership Crisis Response Failure Behaviors

1. Surprise: Stems from the U.S. management culture developed over the last 40 years which stresses the invincibility of managers and leaders based on extensive monitoring and data collection to the exclusion of many traditional (historic?) management beliefs, actions, concerns and functions. Today’s prevailing attitude is that smart managers are unlikely to suffer a crisis.

The unintended consequence of this delusion is that much necessary readiness activity never takes place.

Part of the surprise crisis always brings is related to the almost immediate realization by these smart leaders that readiness has suffered in an environment of management omnipotence and over optimism about inherent response capabilities.

The lesson: The smarter they are the harder and faster they fall.

The outcome is: The refusal to believe that things are serious, i.e. not wanting to look too concerned in the eyes and gossip of peers.

2. Disbelief:  Arises immediately in a crisis because of the ingrained belief that, “It must be a mistake. Crisis doesn’t happen here, to me.” So, the word goes forth to demonstrate that is not true. Even if something adverse is clearly occurring, the lies begin, “We don’t know what is happening, it can’t be serious, it is not a crisis and will likely be over quickly, don’t worry.” The instruction from management is interpreted to mean: “find out that it’s not a crisis,” plus, “don’t do or say anything until you talk to us.” The response is held up and covering up expands. When this happens, the organization and its leadership are absolutely destined to act out the remaining LCFRBs. Things are getting worse.

3. Silence: The most toxic strategy possible. Makes you look like a perpetrator, sound like a liar, quickly become untrustable, whether true or not. Here’s the serious problem with this strategy: There is no credible, reasonable, rational or honorable way to explain why you are doing nothing (whether true or not), remained silent for so long, yet whining about the unfairness of it all while the real victims are piling up. The lesson is that silence is quickly toxic to reputation and is the most frequent CEO career-killing event. Silence always implies intentional inaction when it really signals is incompetence, fear, arrogance, and confusion.

The combination of silence and disbelief creates what will likely become the powerfully corrosive reputational injury that causes even a technically perfect response to be remembered as fumbled, bungled and badly communicated. The silence gap and nonresponse often causes speculation about more serious wrongdoing than disclosed, unpreparedness, working to hide the truth, covering up and speculation that dogs whatever truth does emerge.

4. Stalling: the process of waiting to talk and holding up decision-making until the right information arrives (that there is no crisis). This step requires enforcing a period of toxic silence on everyone at the top and to various depths of management. Speed of action and decision beats smart every time. Failure to act immediately, even incorrectly, is impossible to explain or apologize for. Doing nothing, even for what appears to be good reasons, is never explainable. The clock starts ticking on top management’s departure.

5. Denial: Refusal to accept the fact that something bad has really happened and that there may be victims or other direct negative effects that require prompt public acknowledgement and response.

The rational explanations and approaches management has learned dating back to models and simulations during their education will fail. They were flawed from the start because when crisis, an irrational circumstance, meets models, definitions, data, and overoptimistic management, the resulting chaos always wins, at first, sometimes for a long time. The lesson: Denial once underway has a momentum all its own.

 6. Victim Confusion: begins occurring almost immediately. Senior management introduces the task of minimizing whatever the “non-crisis” impact will be on the organization. That’s when a problem that starts in the field is appropriated into the C-suite. When the leadership of an afflicted organization is distracted, even blindsided by all the attention given to those who are victims, people, animals living systems, sometimes all three, management confusion, irritation and humiliation boils over and the screaming begins.

“Hey, We Are Victims Too!”

As the media, social or legacy, the community and even some employees confirm internal problems and blame the organization, there is an emotional response that paralyzes management. “Hey, they say mostly to each other, “we are victims too. We’ve been injured, damaged and are suffering is much as anybody else.” Still the visibility and concern focus on real victims rather than the organization and its good behavior over the years.

It’s this decisional paralysis caused by the inherent unfairness of crisis situations that grips management, distracts management, irritates, agitates and humiliates management. The problem is, of course, that the first issue management wants resolved in their favor is recognition of their own suffering and embarrassment while getting some credit for all the good things they’ve done before the crisis occurred.

In the minds of management, often reinforced by well-meaning but naïve public relations people, the good work done by an organization should counterbalance some of the damage, even death and destruction, that has been caused. The lesson is: when there are victims, most goodwill bank accounts dry up. The perpetrator(s) starts from scratch.

A Crisis Breaks Your Goodwill Bank and Your Bank Account.

The Goodwill Bank theory (or rather myth) has always been the assumption that it works like an insurance policy, automatic protection against controversy and controversial behavior. The problem is that when an organization really needs to rely on the insurance, there are victims whose suffering, harm, misery and heartache plus worse misunderstandings and confusion crises so often cause. The goodwill bank can’t even begin to compensate. The lesson is that it’s the people and potential victims who hold your goodwill deposits. The creation of victims quickly overwhelms most, if not all, of your prior good deeds.

7. Testosterosis: Often Management’s First Public Response to look for ways to hit back, rather than to deal with the problem. Refuse to give in, refuse to respect those who may have a difference of opinion or a legitimate issue. That’s because Management’s first crisis response is usually emotional or emotionally driven. Crisis management always puts management in crisis.

Testosterosis is a Lukaszewski word to characterize this puzzling and confusing first set of outbursts. Management testosterosis, spontaneous hitting back or striking preemptively is the single most powerful recruiting tool trial lawyers need to secure clients, crated freely by those now considered to be the perpetrator of the problem. And like the crisis itself, things are about to get worse because crises always get worse before they get better. All crises ripen badly.

8. Arrogance: Reluctance to apologize, express concern or empathy, or to take appropriate responsibility because, “If we do that, we’ll be liable,” or, “We’ll look like sissies,” or, “We’ll set a precedent,” or, “There will be copycats.” Arrogance is also responsible for lack of readiness which is epidemic among arrogant inherently overly-optimistic, overly-confident management and leadership overwhelmed by crisis.

Frequent repeated studies analyzing the readiness of organizations consistently demonstrate that just a small percentage, even of the best companies are truly prepared and ready to manage crises. This lack of readiness emotionally as well as logistically remains itself a great puzzle.

I blame management education in many cases for this deficient preparation. Modern managers are taught that the chance of their suffering a crisis is pretty close to zero. That means resources redirected to higher priorities. There is also the notion that today’s managers are inherently smarter and good communicators.

This reality alone proves that data is often useless. The reason is that data is always missing the ingredient of understanding.

Rather than listening to and acting on the advice of internal communications experts from the emergency’s beginning there is often a divisive debate among management ranging from doing nothing to doing as little as possible while lashing out at internal experts, disgruntled employees and enemies and ignoring external experts and the suffering of the victims.

The clock is ticking this entire time every tick of the clock during this period of silence, confusion, stalling and testosterosis represents a substantial nick in the organization’s reputation as well as the survivability of top management.

9. Arrogance: The management habit of trying to control everything once recognizing the level of their troubles. Reluctance to apologize, express concern or empathy, or to take appropriate responsibility because, “If we do that, we’ll be liable,” or, “We’ll look like sissies,” or, “We’ll set a precedent,” or, “There will be copycats.”

Bottom Line:

Leadership Emotional Readiness Is Far More Important Than Logistical or Tactical Readiness

When it comes to crisis readiness recognize and prepare management for this very human sequence of behaviors, mistakes and loneliness. The most important barrier to effective crisis leadership can be prepared for, overcoming the pain and paralysis caused by management “suffering” due to their confusion about who the true victims are. Unless senior leadership is killed, wounded, injured or are vitally incapacitated in some way, in crisis the victims are everybody but them.

10. Search for the Guilty: The original order is changed to read, “Find out who screwed up.” Shift blame anywhere you can while digging into the organization, looking for traitors, turncoats, troublemakers, those who push back, and the unconvinceables.

11. Fear of the Media: As it becomes more clear that the problem is at least partly real, the media begin asking, “What did you know, and when did you know it?”, “What have you done, and when did you do it?”, and other humiliating, embarrassing, and damaging questions for which there are no really good, truthful answers anymore because you have stalled so long.

12. Whining: Head down, finger in your navel, shuffling around, whining, and complaining about how bad your luck is, about being a victim of the media, zealous do-gooders, wacko-activists, or people don’t know anything; about how people you don’t respect have power; and, that you “don’t get credit” for whatever good you’ve already contributed.

The Pathology of Leadership Error in Crisis: Self-Inflicted Leadership Crisis Response Failure Behaviors (LCRFBs), by James E. Lukaszewski, author of
Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management.

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