Strategic Leadership in Times of Crisis

Strategic Leadership in Times of Crisis

Katie L. Treadwell (Columbia University, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch111
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Abstract

With increasingly commonplace threats of intentional violence, citywide terrorism, natural disasters, and unpredictable accidents, leaders navigate disaster situations on a more frequent basis than they may be prepared to encounter. Escalating media connectivity and social networks put organizations and leaders at greater risk for public perception crises on a routine basis, forcing them to take preventative steps well in advance of potential crises and remain vigilant in responding to such situations. The following chapter explores emergency response through a strategic lens, offering a background in crisis management literature and a theoretical basis for learning in the midst of disaster. Drawing upon an extensive study of higher education professionals who encountered high-profile disasters, the author offers practical strategies to navigate crises while maintaining individual and organizational character. Doing so may determine both the victims' experience with the tragedy and the public's long-term perception of the organization.
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Introduction

With increasingly commonplace threats of intentional violence, citywide terrorism, natural disasters, and unpredictable accidents, leaders navigate disaster situations on a more frequent basis than they may be prepared to encounter. Noteworthy events such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, Boston Marathon bombing, Virginia Tech University shootings, Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings, Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and many other heartbreaking incidents impact both specific organizations and the broader community. Escalating media connectivity and social networks place organizations and leaders at greater risk for public perception crises on a routine basis, forcing them to take preventative steps well in advance of potential crises and remain vigilant in responding to such situations. When the unthinkable happens, leaders face the daunting task of not only responding to the tragedy, but also leading their community through the response and recovery efforts. Leadership actions and strategic decisions in the midst of a crisis chart a course for organizational survival or demise, as well as the leader’s personal and professional wellness.

Strategic leadership provides “direction for translating the vision into action and is the basis for the development of specific mechanisms to help the organization achieve goals” (Daft, 2001, p. 472). By “taking a specific step toward the future” (Daft, 2001, p. 487), strategic leaders anticipate complex or uncertain situations, challenge conventional thinking, interpret patterns and ambiguity, make difficult decisions, align stakeholders through engaging communication, and facilitate organizational learning (Schoemaker, Krupp, & Howland, 2013). While many leaders are skilled at these activities under normal operations, the ability to realize vision and achieve organizational goals in the midst of disaster is perhaps the most critical obligation a leader encounters. Leadership actions in the wake of tragedy determine a leader’s future, as well as the long-term survival of their organization. Responding to crises in meaningful ways restores faith in the institution and demonstrates an ethic of care to external and internal constituents. Failure to engage in critical crisis response activities or act in a timely manner dissolves constituents’ trust and may have dire consequences for the organization’s future.

To learn more about the nature of crisis leadership, the author conducted an extensive research study on individuals who encountered high-profile disaster situations. These leaders served within a college or university and held the highest-ranking student affairs administration role at their institution (typically with a Dean of Students or Vice President of Student Affairs title). The 11 individuals who participated in the study navigated some of the most heartbreaking and recognizable university tragedies in the previous 15 years. They unexpectedly faced intentional violence, citywide terrorism, natural disasters, and unfortunate accidents that included significant loss of life and forever changed their institution. The author spoke with each leader for five hours over the course of two years, learning more about their personal experiences, professional responses, and advice for individuals who encounter similar situations in the future. While their experiences occurred within a higher education setting, lessons learned may be applicable to lower-level schools, non-profit agencies, corporations, or other public venues. The current chapter offers an introduction to crisis management literature, theories to support learning in crisis, and strategic leadership strategies for navigating crises.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Experiential Learning: “Learning processes in which the experience of the learner is used as the prime source and stimulus for learning” (Boud, 2005, p. 243).

Disaster: “A sudden, calamitous event causing great damage, loss, or destruction” (LaBanc et al., 2010, p. 53).

Phenomenology: “The study of lived experience… Lived experience is the starting point and end point of phenomenological research” (Van Manen, 1990, p. 9, 36).

Tragedy: “An event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe” (Oxford University Press, 2013 AU29: The in-text citation "Oxford University Press, 2013" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ).

Constructivism: The belief that “learning is a process of constructing meaning; it is how people make sense of their experience” (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 291).

Strategic Leadership: Strategic leaders focus “on a vision of the organization’s future and systematically maps out how to get there. A leader uses this approach to see the big picture” (Farkas & De Backer, 2001, p. 93).

Crisis/Critical Incident: “A turning point, an event of decisive importance with respect to an outcome, attended with risk or hazard” (LaBanc et al., 2010, p. 53).

Reflective Practice: “A deliberate slowing down to consider multiple perspectives… to gain deeper insights that lead to action” (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 173).

Emergency: “Any sudden, urgent, unforeseen occurrence requiring immediate action” (LaBanc et al., 2010, p. 53).

Lived Experience: “The way that a person experiences and understands his or her world as real and meaningful. Lived meanings describe those aspects of a situation as experienced by the person in it” (Van Manen, 1990, p. 183).

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