IT’S THE OPTICS…and then crisis!


“Crisis”: a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.

I have to admit I’m not sure there’s a complete playbook on how to effectively deal with crisis as a leader….however there is a playbook on managing the “OPTICS”. This is literally my 5th post on the subject of leading through crisis and as we continue witnessing crisis management incompetence by our leaders of today I’m afraid this will probably not be my last. I’m first baffled at the rate of which we’re seeing the total meltdown of those appointed to positions of authority when dealing with crisis. Now, let me state I’m by no means the foremost thought leader on how to effectively deal with a burning fire  and quite frankly I’m not sure there are many out there who are (other than firemen). Dealing with a crisis is such a “situational” experience that an off the shelf mechanism that addresses all calamities just doesn’t exist. It’s a damn if you do, damn if you don’t proposition. Reacting to a crisis without some strategy is seen as incompetent if not dangerous; not reacting to a crisis fast enough is seen as incompetent if not dangerous. Adding to the complexity are the Monday morning quarterbacks like you and I who have the luxury of critiquing the leader’s performance…after the fact. After all of the recent debacles of crisis leadership we’ve seen in our country of the United States its clear “Crisis Management” is an ongoing skill development challenge. The crazy thing however is that like beauty effective crisis management is in the eyes of the beholder. Where leaders get caught is focusing their entire energy on looking “beautiful” to EVERYONE when determining how to address a particular crisis….only to become the “Crisis”. In an INC. magazine article dated Oct 2014 Bruce Condit (Vice President, Allegiance Capital) outlines 7 critical steps to effective crisis management:

  1. Have a Plan
  2. Identify a Spokesperson
  3. Be Honest and Open
  4. Keep Employees Informed
  5. Communicate with customers and suppliers (and the media)
  6. Update Early and Often
  7. Don’t Forget Social Media

While I agree with every step Mr. Condit outlined he has missed one really critical step….control the “OPTICS”. The biggest challenge with any crisis is that you don’t see it coming until it happens and often times there are no warning. While these 7 steps hold water in theory and textbook…I’ll bet you once a crisis appears 4 out of the 7 steps won’t apply. Most of our anger with leaders centers on how they’ve handled a specific crisis, which comes from a superficial point of view based on how they looked managing it….thus the “OPTICS”.

Optics of Crisis

As I’ve mentioned we’ve seen crisis leadership incompetence at its height in the last few years but none has stood out more than British Petroleum’s CEO Tony Hayward leader of the biggest oil spill in history. The optics from Mr. Hayward’s management of the U.S. oil spill was one of legends. Below highlights some of Mr. Hayward’s most memorable moments:

  1. "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back." —BP CEO Tony Hayward, on the oil spill disaster that claimed 11 lives and has since spewed 20 to 100 million gallons of toxic oil into the Gulf of Mexico, May 31, 2010
  2. "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest." —Tony Hayward, interview with Sky News television, May 18, 2010
  3. "What the hell did we do to deserve this?" --BP CEO Tony Hayward, speaking to fellow executives in London about the Gulf oil spill disaster, May 2, 2010
  4. In one of his most famous gaffes, Hayward told The Guardian "the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." With thousands of gallons pumping into the ocean every day, this small ratio of oil to water is taking a large toll.
  5. "Yeah, of course I am." —Tony Hayward, when asked if he sleeps at night, Forbes, May 18, 2010

How this guy became the CEO of one of the most powerful oil companies in the world…..speechless.
While this is almost an over the top example of incompetence from a leader managing crisis it nonetheless demonstrates a skill gap many of these perceived highly educated geniuses have. Strategically dealing with a crisis behind close doors is one thing, appearing like a buffoon in front of the door is what sets people off and drives the narrative/optics of incompetency. As a leader you can do absolutely everything right in the “crisis meeting”, however if that work isn’t effectively communicated directly to those most impacted by the crisis….everything behind closed doors won’t matter. BP CEO Tony Hayward obviously wasn’t prepared or suited intellectually to deal with a disaster of epic proportions, but I would argue very few would have been. You see, a crisis in its essence is impossible to prepare for I don’t care what safe guards/precautions you put in place…life will throw you a curve ball you cannot possibly hit. However, how you react to a crisis as a leader makes all of the difference. It’s analogous to a duck paddling on a pond’s surface, it looks so effortless…yet their feet below water are moving in chaos. Confidence in a leaders ability to do their job effectively often times comes from the “Optics” whether that’s fair or not it is reality and unfortunately many of today’s leaders haven’t had that coaching. Unlike years past when there wasn’t what I call “Voyeur Media” or 24/7 access to EVERYONE’S life you could get away with incompetent leadership, but not anymore even the local hardware store owner can get shutdown if he/she is caught on video saying something insulting.
Lastly, like you who are in the United States I have been extremely disappointed with the recent events that have divided our country, and while the “OPTICS” haven’t given us any confidence that our leadership knows how to handle the various crisis thrust upon us, it’s clear if it doesn’t improve we will be headed for a crisis we won’t be able to recover from.  Again, not that I’m the foremost thought leader on dealing with crisis I have nonetheless successfully managed a few crisis and currently coach corporate leaders on how to successfully operate with a crisis. Below are just some of my observations:

  • Don’t overreact even if the situation is severe our worst decisions on conflicts happen when the mind doesn’t have time to unscramble...seems simple but many do not heed.
  • What does the “Vision/Credo” tell you? I’m amazed at how many decisions are made on issues without the inclusion of the company’s vision or credo...why do you have a vision or credo if you don’t let it lead your way.
  • Determine what’s best for the “PEOPLE” then the business, and many decisions are made on emotion which is part of our human DNA, however separating emotion from practicality/common sense can lead to the best available plan towards the crisis.
  • REPEAT: Place people first! Your business decisions have to be in the best interest of your people or the people.
  • Most importantly, BE VISIBLE! Don’t hide when there’s a crisis and don’t “pass the buck”…take accountability.

IT’S THE OPTICS…and then crisis!

Thank you!!
Take a look at our whitepaper: Cross Functional Leadership….”Leading Across The Ambiguity Aisle”
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Andre’ Harrell
AH2 & Beyond Consulting

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