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Slowing down to speed up: Leadership communication in a crisis

6 min read


When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, Rod West had to tell the truth and tell it fast. As Entergy’s operational executive he was on point to restore power.

When Rod faced his team after surveying the destruction from a helicopter, everyone had questions. What did you see? How bad is it? What about my neighborhood?

My response was: “Six feet of water; eight feet of water….”

“What about St. Bernard’s—you know right where I live?”

“Nine. Feet. Of water.”

As tension grew, …finally I said (slowly), “The city is under water. So for most of you, everything you left at home is destroyed.”

New Orleans would be lost without them — they knew that. Hard as it was for everyone, Rod’s honesty marshaled action. The raw truth called everyone to higher purpose.

Big lesson: Tell the truth and tell it fast.

While doing research for our book, “Navigating an Organizational Crisis: When Leadership Matters Most,” we spoke with dozens of leaders who weathered crises. The temptation to withhold bad news, soften the blow, or wait for more information is always tempting. We learned that naming the truth, pronto, is the crucial first step toward recovery.

The second step toward recovery requires communications of a different sort. Having been jolted with the truth, people now want to make sense of things. The organization segues from asking “what just happened” to “what do we do with what just happened?” People wonder about the meaning of it all, and the leader has to slow down.

When meaning is disrupted, people feel unsafe and out of control. Meaning—the expected relationships connecting all that we know and value—allows us to trust we know what is going on. To restore meaning after a crisis we recommend three strategies. They require thought and care—not breakneck speed.

  1. Be the storyteller-in-chief.

Stories can restore meaning. They can make mind-boggling events comprehensible. When leaders act as storytellers, they create an ancient venue for communication — a campfire where the organization can envision a better future.

Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Center of Boston, was called to the role of storyteller-in-chief for the area’s Muslim community after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Once the suspected bombers were identified as Muslims, all eyes turned to the city’s Islamic community. Yusufi was asked by elders to take the microphone. The media were in frenzy. Some reporters’ questions implied members of the community might be in cahoots with the suspects. Others asked about backlash against Muslims as if they were the victims. Either angle positioned Muslims as others, not Bostonians.

Yusufi realized he had to change the narrative. In indignation and growing self-awareness of his previous passivity, he began to reshape the story.

We are Bostonians first, and we speak from that perspective. We tell a narrative of what our institutions, our community is about: teaching and preaching an American Islam, an Islam that’s rooted in compassion, that’s rooted in our commitment to our community and to America.

Yusufi became storyteller-in-chief. “I feel like we are in a historic place in the Muslim community where we are pioneering what a mosque space in America can and should look like.” Emulate Yusufi after your crisis: Patiently and persistently tell a story that restores meaning.

  1. Tell the story, with you in it.

President George W. Bush stood at Ground Zero after 9/11 to thank firefighters and first responders. When someone yelled that he couldn’t hear, the president responded, “I can hear you, and the rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd erupted. Bush found his footing. He was in the story as the nation’s leader.

President Barack Obama reacted to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012 “as a parent.” Feeling “overwhelming grief,” he addressed the nation: “This evening Michelle and I will do what every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and tell them that we love them.” Parent, president, and mourner, Obama was fully in the story.

Leadership in a crisis requires narrating the organizational story as a participant—with emotion.

We are often asked whether leaders should display emotion in a crisis. We think the more profound question is how. Emotional tone matters, a lot. A leader’s credibility can suffer if sadness shows up as sobbing, or anger becomes rage. Sometimes negative emotions are warranted; equally, positive emotions can seem superficial. The core issue is somehow different: Are you expressing emotions that that you truly feel, and are you in sync with the situation?

Tell the story, make it yours, and don’t hide your authentic feelings. Slow down, honor your gut reactions, and you’ll get it right.

  1. Listen to your listeners

Denise Hudson was responsible for quality and supply chain in a pharmaceutical company when a vendor suddenly failed. She and her team worked “multiple and parallel paths” to produce the important drug in short order. Her ability to listen was crucial to their success.

Denise had honed her listening skills in a previous role as manager of a troubled factory. In a five-hour, confrontational meeting organized by her staff, where she was targeted and blamed, Denise listened and listened. And then they turned the plant around.

Leadership storytelling is much more than one-way communications. Organizational buy-in to a post-crisis narrative is achieved when a leader’s story achieves a life of its own. Story is told, heard, passed on, reheard, and modified along the way. Listen when your stories return home—and learn what people are really thinking and feeling.

Recovery and renewal

Recovery and renewal are goals not guarantees after an organizational crisis. To recover and renew, first tell the truth and tell it fast. Then slow down. To accelerate the natural process of healing, adopt the slower cadence of making meaning through story.

Harry Huston and Martha Johnson are the authors of “Navigating an Organizational Crisis: When Leadership Matters Most” (Praeger, 2016).

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