In Crisis

In Crisis by Dr. Robert Gerwig

Photo by Author

The t-shirt read, “I am one of Guam’s 250 survivors!” Super Typhoon Pamela came to the small island with sustained winds of 140 mph. It knocked out the electricity on the island for over a month (well, except for the military installations).

For the kids in my neighborhood, it was cool. No electricity. No school. People grilling and eating all the food in their ‘frigerators before it spoiled. Neighbors checking on neighbors. Reliving the storm. Looking at the flattened jungle (one wind gauge that was supposed to withstand gusts to 250 mph broke!). It was a BIG storm. We never returned to school that year. The last 4-5 weeks were cancelled! … Despite the first communication from the island that made its way back to the States – “Only 250 survivors on Guam!” (Guam had 100,000+ residents), only 1 fatality was actually reported/confirmed.

Growing up, I lived through several tropical storms, typhoons, hurricanes, tornados, and a large earthquake (over 7 on the Richter scale). Each of these natural disasters caused havoc to homes, businesses, and the lives of people.

While not as obvious, personal disasters (or crises) can also wreak havoc. Divorce. Financial failure. Physical abuse. Health problems. Chemical dependency. Etc.

As a leader, how do you help people during these times of crisis and why is it important? Well, it’s important because it’s the right thing to do. Period. … Leaders influence others. Leaders move organizations forward. Leaders serve the organization. Leaders care about the organization (and the people in it). If people are hurting, the leader cares. The leader serves. The leader shows empathy and demonstrates high levels of emotional intelligence. Why? Because it’s what leaders do when others are going through a crisis.

At one point, I had the difficult job of announcing a plant closure. The decision was made at the highest levels of the corporation, but I made the announcement. I was the messenger. I was also the leader. The plant manager and the rest of the organization at the site reported to me. Several people involved in making the decision counseled me to stick to the “script” – in other words, to “read” the announcement. I was encouraged to avoid showing emotion. “Get in and get out. Read the announcement and go. Don’t stick around. People will have questions you can’t answer. You’ll find yourself backed into a corner. There may be physical violence.”

Wow! This wasn’t what I signed up for – to run from difficulty. In the end, after going over the announcement (both reading what was in the “official” announcement and providing my own words of context), I met individually with EVERY employee. I expressed disappointment in closing the plant. Shared words of encouragement where appropriate. Cried with some. Laughed with others. In the end, it was one of the most difficult, tough, and RIGHT things I’ve done as a leader. Yes, it took a long time. Yes, the security team was concerned for my safety. Yes, it was the right thing to do. Period.

Once the decision was made to close the plant, I WANTED to be the guy making the announcement. I knew it HAD to be me. I didn’t want someone else handling this crisis. I wanted people to be treated with dignity, respect, care, compassion, and honor. They needed to hear the truth, in love. These people had names. Families. Emotions. They needed a leader who would serve them.

In times of crisis, great leaders rise to the top. They don’t shy away from the difficult things. The conversations. The tough questions. The tears. The anger. The disbelief. … Great leaders help the organization, serve the organization, by listening and caring. By being available. By making appropriate accommodations to individual needs.

How are you helping others during times of crisis? How have others helped you during times of crisis?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. The floor is ALWAYS open.

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