“They spit at us,” General Robert Van Antwerp says, reflecting back on his and his team’s experience reaching out to devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Those saliva projectiles were clearly directed at the wrong person. Why would New Orleans’ finest spit at an army general? Why would they spit at the person who was there to rebuild their city, the chief engineer at the Army Corps of Engineers?
It was “okay,” General Van Antwerp reassures me, explaining that sometimes people need to vent and express their anger before a leader can begin the process of building trust.
I sit amazed as General Van Antwerp recounts his team’s decisions to drive the streets, hold town-hall-style meetings, and relocate to New Orleans, becoming neighbors to the devastated. This guy was an army general, and at the time the corps had thousands of employees focused on hundreds of key priorities around the world.
Clearly, General Van Antwerp understands how our best leaders answer the question, “Who owns the crisis?”
“Fred sure messed that one up!” Or, “That poor department will never see the light of day again!” Those are the typical messages many leaders unwittingly communicate when they make the mistake of delegating a highly visible crisis, something that inevitably challenges every organization.
On the other hand, when a leader takes ownership of a crisis, they communicate the message, “I am going to help us through this,” or “I have your back,” or “Our mission is on the line, so I am going to handle this.” These messages can be highly motivating, and they serve to help fuse an organization’s members together around a central purpose or cause.
To be sure, every leader must distinguish between the crisis that stems from incompetence and the crisis that stems from the “stuff happens” truism.
During my journey as CEO, I experienced plenty of both. One horrible afternoon, I fired an employee on the spot because of incompetence when he unwittingly took a significant part of our network down due to his failure to perform his basic job duties.
On another occasion, I arrived at the office in a great mood, thinking everything was going well — until I opened my email and saw a note from our chief engineer. He said we were experiencing a “hard down” in a major city. Worse yet, the hospital in this city, a regional trauma center, was also down, meaning they could not communicate with the outside world.
This particular crisis hit home, because that hospital is where I last saw my grandfather during the final moments of his life. At that moment, I did not know that our company, Integra Telecom, would grow to become one of the ten largest competitors in the fiber-based telecommunications industry. All I could think about was that this incident was a threat to our core mission. We built the company around the mission of providing a superior customer experience. At this moment, a regional trauma center, the epitome of our mission’s critical customer, was without service.
Our only focus was on restoring service to the hospital and taking steps to make sure this never happened again. It did not matter that, as we would later learn, two critical network devices, one redundant to the other, failed at the same time — a rare occurrence in the highly engineered world of secure data communications. Our priority was restoring service and delivering on our mission.
Fortunately, service was restored within a couple hours, nobody was hurt, and I personally spent the better part of the next week meeting with the customer, reviewing engineered network solutions, and taking steps to ensure this would never happen again. The customer came to understand that we had installed a redundant network and yet “stuff still happened.” The hospital helped us improve our network design and remained with us for years.
I don’t want to sugar coat anything. There were times in my career when I succumbed to pointing the finger of blame at others, missing key opportunities during a crisis to tangibly demonstrate my commitment to our mission. These times remind me that I was not always at the top of my game. Even today, I wonder if I would have had the courage General Van Antwerp demonstrated when he personally toured the streets of New Orleans, meeting face to face with those who were devastated by the failed dike system.
Managing through a crisis marks one of the most challenging times for any leader. In my experience of more than 15 years as a cofounder and CEO, it is a journey with ups and downs. However, there is no mystery in the destination. Clarity exists for any leader who seeks to motivate their organization around a shared purpose. Just ask yourself the simple question, “Who owns the crisis?””
Dudley Slater is coauthor, with Steve Taylor, of Fusion Leadership: Unleashing The Movement of Monday Morning Enthusiasts.