By Thom Little, Ph.D.
Last Fall, SLLF hosted “Testing Your Mettle: Leading Through Crisis” at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas where we examined how US Presidents and legislative leaders responded to crises. In preparing for that program, I examined how legislative leaders addressed recent crises in their states and responses of President Bush to 9/11. Following the meeting, I wanted to write a blog about lessons I learned, but other things got in the way and when I finally had time to sit down and write it, we had shifted our attention to other programs and the time just did not seem right.
Now, unfortunately, the time for such an article seems all too right, so here it is. At the Dallas conference we examined how Presidents Lincoln (Civil War), Bush (9/11) and Johnson (assassination of President Kennedy) responded to the crises that forever defined their presidencies. Further, we looked at how leaders in Alabama (simultaneous resignation of the governor, indictment of the speaker and removal of the chief justice) and West Virginia (impeachment of the state supreme court and physical altercation on the House floor) responded to challenging events within their states. I also will be pulling lessons from my study of leadership responses to the 2017 budget crisis in Kansas.
I realize that none of these crises are exactly like the health and economic issues we are facing right now. However, I do think there are lessons to be learned from how these events were handled by those in leadership positions. Here are some steps you might take to respond to our current issues..
Acknowledge the Crisis. It is often said that the first step to addressing any problem is acknowledging the problem and crisis management is no different. Effective leaders recognize the significance of a crisis instead of trying to downplay it or minimize its potential impact. It would be better to be accused of overreacting rather than underreacting. In Alabama, incoming Speaker Mac McCutcheon quickly acknowledged the declining public trust as the governor, speaker and chief justice were all forced from office. For Presidents Bush, Johnson and Lincoln, the crisis was evident, but all rightfully acknowledged the significance of the situations facing them and the nation.
Just the Facts. While there is a great temptation, especially in this era of immediate communication, to respond immediately to a crisis, it is critical that you take time to gather as much information about the situation as possible so that you do not inadvertently distribute incorrect information that makes things worse. If you feel you must go public immediately to assure the public that things are under control, it is fine to explain what you do know and acknowledge what you don’t yet know. Before addressing America after 9/11, President George W. Bush tried to gather as much information as possible about the attack, its impact and the attackers.
Take Charge. Leadership is always important, but never so much as during a crisis. People fear many things, but the unknown is perhaps the greatest fear of all and usually crises are full of the unknown. What happened? What will happen next? How does this affect me and my family? How does this affect my job? It is your job to assure those who look to you, be they legislators, staffers, constituents or the general public, that you are addressing the crisis and will do everything you can to make things right. When George Bush spoke to us from that bullhorn, the nation knew he was in control. In West Virginia, when Speaker Hanshaw left the rostrum to address chamber decorum, reminding members to “be who the people sent you here to be,” everyone in the chamber and the state knew he was in control.
Listen to the Experts. I don’t care how smart or well read you are, you cannot be an expert on every issue. You cannot know everything and you can surely not know all possible solutions to a problem and all of their potential unintended (or intended) consequences. Rely on those who do know. If it is a health issue, trust the medical field. If it is a financial problem, trust the economic experts. If it is a military crisis, listen to your generals. While President Lincoln periodically stuck his nose into the conduct of the Civil War, once he found in Ulysses Grant “a general who would fight,” he left the military strategy to him. As Kansas tried to dig itself out of a financial hole, the leaders turned to economic experts from the public and private sectors for possible solutions, trusting them to give them the best options from which an effective response could be selected and implemented.
Act. Once you have acknowledged the crisis, gathered as much good information as feasible and established that you are in control, it is imperative that you take decisive action to address the crisis. Words and promises ring hollow if they are not backed up by decisive action. Take concrete steps to address the situation and to prevent it from happening again. Throughout the American Civil War, President Lincoln acted decisively to maintain the Union, fight the war and win peace. In Kansas, as the state’s budget deficit spiraled out of control, Democrat Jim Ward and Republican Jim Denning worked together with their caucuses to pass a budget that provided revenue to meet the needs of the state. Leaders in West Virginia addressed fiscal abuses by supreme court justices and put in place reforms to avoid them in the future. People don’t care if the solution is Republican or Democratic, they just want the problem solved!
Govern. One of the biggest challenges facing a public official responding to crises is that you have to respond to it while still governing. Bills need to be debated and passed into law. Budgets need to be negotiated and sent to the governor. Constituents still expect you to help grandma get her social security check. Government is expected to govern, even (and maybe especially) in the midst of a crisis. According to Andy Card, chief of staff for President George W. Bush, before addressing America with the bullhorn and meeting with grieving families on Friday, September 14, President Bush convened a Cabinet meeting to instruct each member what they needed to be working on to make sure the government continued to function. Likewise, on the night of Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson and his team worked through the night discussing legislation to address the needs of a confuse and fearful nation.
So, as you continue to lead your state through these perilous times, learn the lessons of those who have come before you: acknowledge the crisis, gather the facts, take charge, rely on experts for ideas, take decisive action and continue to meet the needs of the state. I know this is a heavy load to bear, but I have confidence that you will rise to the occasion, and please know that we at SLLF stand ready to assist in any way we can.