When is a disaster a crisis?

Crisis leaders understand uncertainty of outcome is key to success

by G. Mark Towhey

At 40, 000 feet and traveling 640 kilometers per hour, if you fall out of an airplane without a parachute it is not a crisis.  It’s depressing, probably horrifying.  It might be a tragedy.  It certainly is going to become messy.  But a crisis?  No.

If you’re an astronaut trapped in a stricken spacecraft on the dark side of the moon watching the last molecules of air hiss out of a hole in the wall, leaving you exposed to the cold, harsh vacuum of space, it’s tragic.  It’s unfair.  It’s a disaster.  But, it’s not a crisis.

Now, if you’re the CEO of an airline that just let a passenger fall out of its London to New York red-eye – or the NASA administrator facing down political critics at  a Congressional hearing into how two astronauts died on the moon – that’s a crisis.

What makes one thing a crisis and another thing “ just” a disaster, catastrophe or horror?  One thing, perhaps more than any other factor, marks the difference:  options.

Falling out of an airplane at 40,000 ft without a parachute is not a crisis.

As anyone who has ever attended a crisis management seminar or read an article or book on crisis management will attest, popular wisdom has it that the Chinese symbol for crisis is comprised of the symbol for “risk” and the symbol for “opportunity”.  Whether the Chinese are really as wise as we believe them to be, or not, the fact is that risk and opportunity – together – are at the core of every crisis.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines crisis, in part, as “a turning point…”  Dictionary.com says crisis is “a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse is determined”

When something horrible happens, it’s a disaster.  When something happens that may or not turn out horribly – that’s a crisis.  If you fall out of an airplane at 40,000 feet without a parachute it’s not a crisis, because you have no options.  You’re going down.  Hard.  Your friends and family will grieve, but there’s nothing you can do except make peace with your god.  If you’ve drawn your last breath on a stranded spaceship too far for rescue, it’s not a crisis, because the outcome is certain.  You will be a dead hero.

Without options, there is no crisis. Just disaster.

On the other hand, if you’re the airline CEO and this horrific accident could (a) spell the end of your airline or (b) simply be a low point in the history of your airline, then you’re in crisis.  You have options.  How you lead your organization through the sequence of events that follows, making choices and taking actions to achieve option (b) and avoid option (a) will make the difference.  You have options.  If you’re the NASA administrator faced with (a) a sad day for NASA or (b) the end of manned exploration of space, you’re in a crisis because the outcome is uncertain.  You have options.

Because the outcome of a crisis is, by definition, uncertain, leadership in crisis is pivotal to success.  Strong, effective leadership will lead your organization to make the right choices at the right time, to efficiently execute the right tasks and to move it forward along the right path – earning the better destiny.  Poor or ineffective leadership will allow fate or competitive forces to eliminate choices until only one possible path remains.  At that point, the crisis is over – and you have lost.

It is critically important for leaders at all levels to recognize this fundamental element of every crisis:  in a crisis, you have it within your power to influence the outcome.  Good leaders will seize this opportunity, dust themselves off, assess their situations and say “follow me!”  They will make the best possible decision they can make at each decision point and will inspire others to follow them along the right path to the best possible outcome.  That is good crisis leadership.

Are you ready to be a crisis leader?


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