In May of 2010, BP’s then-CEO uttered what must’ve become one of the most infamous phrases in the annals of crisis communications: “There is no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
The leader in question, Tony Hayward, already had a reputation for making cringe-inducing declarations, as a Fortune reporter observed that year. In the context of the large-scale—and, at the time, still unresolved—environmental disaster represented by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, these remarks felt unforgivably self-centered and tone-deaf. This is far from what any senior crisis counselor would want to hear coming from the lips of their CEO or client lead.
Yet, even as the communications leader in me indeed cringed, I was struck by a deeper truth worth exploring: that the comment was made by a person in pain.
In this case, two things were true at once. Hayward’s comments were the precise opposite of the kind of public-facing leadership required in a crisis. And Hayward was experiencing something personally and intensely challenging and likely quite painful. When his comment hit the press, my first thought was “I can’t believe he said that!” My second was, “Wow, what a nakedly honest response.”
I share this anecdote not to advocate for that kind of radical and, frankly, misplaced honesty. Far from it. What interests me—and should interest anyone providing counsel to leaders in challenging times—is the humanity of this moment.
Hayward’s comment was profoundly revealing of the psychological landscape of individuals under extreme public pressure, especially if that individual is the ultimate locus of organizational accountability. Clichés like “it’s lonely at the top” or, if you prefer something more Shakespearean, “uneasy is a head that wears a crown” ring true in these moments. We’d be well-served as crisis experts to remember this.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '23 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Too often, our crisis discussions are focused on more “practical” or operational issues. How to develop a thorough yet flexible crisis plan? Who should be tapped as members of a matrixed crisis response team? How can companies avoid the pitfall of their crisis plan gathering dust on the metaphorical shelf through a clear action plan and proactive cadence of crisis team meetings? Why do so many organizations miss holding debriefs to refine plans once a crisis is mitigated? How do we train our top spokesperson to withstand the pressure of the moment? And so on.
These are all vital and necessary questions. The best—and only—crisis plan worth having is one that’s consistently reviewed, refined and acted on. Yet, when we focus the lion’s share of our attention on tangible to dos, or reduce this work to a series of “quick tips,” we miss the rest of the iceberg. There are layers of complexity beneath the surface, most of which are linked to hard factors to pin down: personal resilience, how we individually process information, the capacity for empathy and mutual compassion and the tangle of emotions that rise when we face adversity.
I say “we” because I’m speaking not just of the leaders we counsel, but also of “us” as the counselors. Here are a few thoughts on how to deepen one’s engagement with the human side of our crisis work.
Actively cultivate a deeper awareness of yourself and others. The middle of a major crisis situation is not the time to reflect on how you or your senior leader process information, what triggers your best—or worst—behaviors or whether either of you lean into bad habits like snap decision-making when under pressure. This kind of self-awareness should be actively and consistently cultivated. And not just for yourself, but also relative to your team and organizational or client leaders. Opening the floor for proactive conversations about personal tendencies, strengths, weaknesses and how each person reacts to different types of pressure will build a strong foundation from which to manage dynamic crisis situations.
Don’t mistake toughness for resilience. In a 2007 Harvard Business Review article titled “Realizing What You’re Made Of,” author Glenn E. Mangurian observed: “Resilience is one of the key qualities desired in business leaders today, but many people confuse it with toughness.” Mangurian noted that while toughness can help leaders cope in the short term with the negative consequences of difficult decisions, it’s also an armor that can cut that leader off from their emotions as well as from others. Those potential outcomes are net-negative when confronting a breaking crisis. He defines resilience, by contrast, as an ability to not deflect but absorb challenges and rebound stronger than before. This is a particularly salient quality in today’s world which is ever more volatile, unpredictable and resistant to “plans.”
Lean into empathy and mutual compassion. Hayward’s quote shone a spotlight on the tendency to revert to “I” in moments of pain or uncertainty. Even the most gracious or committed leader can fall into this trap, as can the most experienced crisis counselor. It takes intention and energy to step back from oneself in times of trouble and actively lean into curiosity and empathy for what others are experiencing. Crisis experts are accustomed to seeking to view a crisis through the eyes of all stakeholders. Yet it’s less common to turn that empathic—and, ideally, compassionate—lens toward the leader who stands in the harshest of spotlights. What are they feeling right now? How is this experience hitting them? And would your simple acknowledgment that “This is hard and I’m sorry for that” connect you more deeply with them as a person, so you can work more effectively as a team?
Insist on moments for mindfulness. There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness and what outcomes it may provide for individuals, teams or organizations. But it doesn’t require an active meditation practice to recognize the importance of taking a breath amid managing an active crisis scenario. As much as speed is core to this work, so is slowing down. Time and space are required to fully assess the latest information and come to the best decision. This includes advocating for moments when everyone on the team stops, takes a full and quiet breath, and steps away from “doing” into “reflecting.” A moment of mindfulness can help thwart action bias, lead to better decision making and keep you connected as a team.
We can never stray too far from the vital operational elements that help us effectively manage even the most challenging situations. Yet, by cultivating greater self-awareness and compassion, and leaning into the more “human” side of crisis management, we can foster better outcomes for all stakeholders while forging stronger relationships with leaders and our teams as a whole. We must also gauge the stress on our leaders and make sure that before they go in front of the public or press, they’re in the right mind space for the moment.
Anne Green is Principal and Managing Director at G&S Business Communications.