CRISIS LEADERSHIP: UNDERSTANDING AND PLANNING FOR EMOTIONAL RESPONSES
BY ANTHONY GIAIMO/DALE RETZLAFF
There are many fallacies surrounding the concept of leadership. One common misconception indicates that “leadership is leadership,” no matter the situation or criteria under which leadership takes place. From the authors’ points of view, and strong opinions as career command-level law enforcement officers, that statement could not be further from the truth. We must realize that crisis leadership is not merely “Leadership 101”. Crisis leadership requires a complete set of skills, experiences, and traits that may not be present in all leaders. In building our leadership toolbox, we must plan for the knowns and unknowns, the constants and variables that arise during times of crisis.
We must expect and anticipate the unexpected. Most importantly, and not always as obvious, we must anticipate a spectrum of emotional responses across all levels, including our own. As such, leaders must understand their own emotions and manage their responses accordingly. This must occur both during and after the crisis, to avoid the possibility of emotions controlling their behavior and decisions. Having the basic understanding of our various emotional responses will aid in minimizing ineffectual and potentially damaging personality changes, such as becoming withdrawn, confused, or other disruptive performance. Such may result and manifest itself in the inability to think clearly, hence ineffective decision making.
Many popular crisis management models do an extraordinary job of providing leaders guidance in planning for crisis events. Yet, most planning models do not specifically address the understanding and management of emotional responses. Like it or not, we are all human and are therefore subject to experiencing mental and physical responses to various stimuli. These responses can be challenging to manage, especially when in crises. In many cases, these varying responses lend additional complexities to our management and leadership functions.
Thus, the question arises as to whether we have can plan for emotional challenges we might experience. In response to this question, we the authors express a very definitive “yes and no.” However, we will present some awareness factors and some categories of emotional reactions that lean more toward the “yes” responses than the “no.” Additionally, we stress and suggest that leadership should certainly incorporate emotional response expectations and mental health awareness into all Crisis OPS plans.
Note: As this is a short awareness piece, intended to be more of a field guide than a clinical research review, the discussion will be limited to general concepts in an overview format.
Categories of Emotional Responses
Expected or “usual” responses to an abnormal situation, such as a crisis, are the simplest to determine and certainly the easiest to plan for. In our planning stages we must realize that a sudden frightening and/or tragic event may evoke fear. In contrast, an emotionally charged civil protest or demonstration, for example, may evoke anger. Emotions such as grief, depression, despair, and dissociation are also common reactions to these types of instances. We must adjust and calibrate plans, accordingly, knowing these possible responses and perceived human behavior.
Non-conforming or non-normative emotional reactions tend to be more challenging to anticipate and can add a great deal of complexity to event planning and response. In some crisis events, leaders have observed emotions that did not fit the “norms” of expected behavior. Using the earlier example of a “frightening and or tragic event,” the non-congruent emotional response might include uncontrollable laughter. Additionally, there is the unexpected reaction of adults exhibiting a childlike mentality and associated behaviors. Other non-conforming emotional responses might include self-reassurance or coping actions like people hugging themselves or others, clutching objects, and or freezing in the fetal position. These responses must all be anticipated, especially when planning mass evacuations.
Non-congruent responses, in many cases, tend to be a normative or expected emotional response with a diverse spectrum of intensity. This is where we see either the overreaction or under reaction to stimuli. Thus, though the overall emotional response may be normative, the level of intensity does not significantly match the situation or stimuli. In some cases, emotional responses bred similar spectrum responses in a crowd mentality (group think) format.
For example, in a post 9/11 emotional sensitivity event, loud noises triggered a frightening mass hysteria events at a New York City Airport. Mass panic quickly spread through the airport terminals as crowds ran toward exits, hid under tables, and broke through secure doors to escape what they believed was a terrorist attack. Given conflicting direction by officers, no official information or directives, many people simply followed the cues of other crowd members and dangerously ran out onto the tarmac.
Three Component Tiers of Emotional Responses
We understand that as a part of any planning process, we must examine and address the components of command (leaders), followers (operators), and participants (general citizens). We suggest that you further explore this examination to include failsafe and backups plans for points of failure, attributed to emotional responses. Additionally, as leaders, always benefit from the learning opportunities, personal and professional leadership growth and “lessons learned” turned into “best practices” from post crisis cold and hot wash reviews.
As leaders, we cannot and should not deny ourselves our human emotions. Although we, as effective leaders, are obligated to keep our emotions under control during crises, we must understand and allow for “moments,” from which we continue to move forward. General Colin Powell (2003) noted in his 13 Rules of Leadership, “Get mad, then get over it.” He further explained, “Instead of letting anger disrupt you, use it to make constructive change.” We can certainly bring this forward in our discussion by recognizing that emotions are a powerful element we can use to further our leadership mission. Emotions can serve to motivate, express empathy or sympathy, and indeed reaffirm that we are all human.
Leaders must plan, train, and estimate how they will react to various stimuli. During crisis events, leaders are expected to communicate effectively, be decisive, and respond while remaining calm and collected. Emotions have strong tendencies to interfere with clear thinking. Thus, any new or diverted plan should be cautiously considered. Certainly, a balance between the timeliness of a decision and making a well-planned decision must be heavily measured during a crisis. As General George Patton (1941) stated, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Thus, make a command decision and do not let emotions interfere or rule your path as a leader.
We depend on each element within our planning model to complete specific tasks, and during a crisis their effectiveness and efficiency is critically important. Understanding that we are all human and have emotional responses to stimuli, followers must also not be denied their emotional response “moment.” As with leaders, followers must have the training and skills to move past a potential psychological impediment and continue with the mission. As with leaders, we conceptualize that not all followers possess the ability and skills to work within an extreme crisis environment. Thus, selection and readiness for duty should be robustly evaluated. Leaders should also consider conducting operations training, including tabletop exercises and field exercises, incorporating elements of what should be expected in various crises. Further, there is a treasure trove of outside training opportunities that should be explored. From the FBI to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), there are continually posted updates on various online training opportunities covering numerous crises.
As expected, the participants and general populous are exceedingly variable. Attempting to determine, or even anticipating specific emotional responses can prove to be extremely challenging. Knowing your community and having “Community Intelligence” before significant planning for crisis events will indeed flatten the curve of emotional response uncertainty. Planning for a spectrum of emotional responses, including various mental health components, is critically important.
By way of example, a municipal police department formulated an educational institutional response plan for active shooter situations. The plan followed national models and was seemingly flawless. When a safety response called for the evacuation of a school with autistic children, the so-called flawless plan suddenly lacked the needed elements to effectively assist these children, many who exhibited non-normative emotional responses.
We, as humans, bring a vast array of emotions to any event. We understand that there is indeed a spectrum of emotions and responses to the same stimuli, brought forth by variations in circumstances surrounding everyone’s life experiences and values. As leaders and followers, we must be able to manage our natural emotional “moments” and move on with the mission at hand. Maintaining a clear mind, devoid of emotional decision-making, has historically proven to be the key to success. Furthermore, incorporating the anticipation and planning for emotional responses can be challenging, but tremendously necessary in the formulation of a complete crisis plan.
About the Authors:
Special Agent Anthony Giaimo, M.S., (Session 241) is a Past President and Vice President of the Eastern Pennsylvania FBI NA Chapter and Chief of Police and Emergency Management Coordinator (Ret. - Tredyffrin Township Police) and currently is a University professor, teaching crisis leadership with duties as a Special Agent for the Florida Department of the Lottery – Law Enforcement Division.
Dr. Dale Retzlaff is the Director of the Organizational Leadership Program at the University of Charleston. He is a combat veteran having served with the 2nd Ranger Battalion and a career police commander with the Washington State Patrol (Lieutenant, Ret.).
Harari, O. (2003). The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Williamson, P. B. (2009). General Patton’s principles for life and leadership. Tucson, AZ, USA: Management and Systems Consultants.
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