How to lead in times of crisis? Is it a mission impossible or a splendid opportunity? “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” answered Professor dr. Paul ‘t Hart at Maastricht University last Monday, using a quote from Nelson Mandela.
Prof. ‘t Hart, a professor of public administration at the Utrecht School of Governance, and Associate Dean at the Netherlands School of Government in the Hague, with previous experience with the Dutch Intelligence Service and the Australia-New Zealand School of Government, has been studying the topic of crisis management for the past 30 years.
The lecture he gave at the invitation of Studium Generale on the subject of “Leadership in times of crisis” held much significance in view of current developments in the economic and political arenas, but also of the many challenges caused by natural disasters, man-made accidents, violence, and other traumatic upheavals that are affecting our world.
Prof. ‘t Hart started his talk by inviting the packed audience to share ideas on what makes a crisis. For many, the word evoked a situation of loss of control, uncertainty, instability, surprise and the unexpected. Generally, ‘t Hart explained, a crisis occurs when things that we take for granted are no longer present to support us, such as prosperity, infrastructure, and other systems put in place to ensure our well-being and safety. A crisis is the moment “when you need to call in the cavalry,” ‘t Hart explained.
According to him, part of the “catalogue of miseries” that make up crises are natural disasters, man-made or “modernity’s disasters” (Chernobyl), “lone-wolf high-impact killers” (the Theo van Gogh crisis in the Netherlands), and crises that transcend borders, escalate quickly and are hard if not impossible to control, such the avian flu pandemic, the US and EU economic crises, or even the ashes from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland which disrupted air traffic across the globe, even as far as Australia.
A distinction can be made between sudden and creeping crises, but in both cases, the professor argued, crises should be seen as processes, not as events. He distinguished three phases in a crisis – pre-disturbance, disturbance and post-disturbance – to show that a crisis can have long-lasting effects on its victims and society at large.
These effects are especially felt when crises have a symbolic and psychological impact, affecting and overturning attitudes, moods, and societal rules. Crises are also deeply political processes as they generate blame-games, high levels of scrutiny, and pressure for responsibility, more often than not towards leaders and governments.
However, a crisis is also the moment when politics become exciting in terms of high-speed decision-making, the need for good coordination, organization and scaling up or down, as necessary. Sometimes even life and death choices have to be made and the stakes are high. This is why crises pose interesting challenges to leadership.
“Leaders need to address four challenges when managing a crisis,” ‘t Hart argued. They have to be able to make sense of the situation, by gathering accurate and reliable information; they need to be able to communicate what happened to the public and offer some sort of meaning to the event; they need to be able to coordinate and organize their resources quickly; and lastly, they need to facilitate internal communication in order to learn from the crisis and to protect the integrity of the organization.
Another interesting aspect of crises is that they unleash “a framing contest” – the crisis is a threat for some, but an opportunity for others, depending on how it is framed. ‘t Hart highlighted that the Chinese character for crisis actually means both a threat and an opportunity, and through examples, he showed how the opposition in a political system can take advantage of a crisis to pinpoint the flaws of the incumbent government, or how particular interest groups can use certain disasters to forward their agenda. Here the expression “never waste a good crisis” comes to mind, although the ethical aspect of crisis exploitation is not something to be taken lightly.
This alternative framing can also lead to a change or a shift in power, or the emergence of new actors, especially in the political sphere. This is visible when a new set of institutions or strategies aimed at managing the situation are created. The problem arising in this situation is that these new systems can then transform into crisis managers looking for a crisis to manage (see the work of Murray Edelman), perpetuating a context where they are needed.
Concluding the lecture, ’t Hart highlighted the Western world’s sometimes contradictory approach to situations of crisis. Quoting Ulrich Beck and Charles Perrow, he explained that “although we are richer and safer than ever before, we still remain obsessed with risk and danger”, and that “the very socio-technical systems that make us safer and richer are also our biggest risk amplifiers”.
Nevertheless, there are two ways to deal with a crisis, as theorized by Aaron Wildavsky: either by ensuring a good prevention mechanism, or, and maybe even more importantly, by enabling resilience, i.e. society’s capacity to bounce back after a crisis, for instance through community support and individual efforts.
Heading home after the lecture, Professor ‘t Hart’s reflections suddenly became even more tangible as we heard the news of the Boston marathon explosions.
By Ana-Maria Raus