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Crisis Leadership

There are no more trying times for any leader than the tests a crisis brings to the table. When dealing with a highly emotional, dramatic event the crisis will reveal the leader’s true character and values. Are your leaders prepared to meet those challenges head on or will they shrink from responsibility and claim victimhood while passing off responsibility to others within the organization? Crisis leadership can be summed up in two simple principles: 1: Always anticipate the potential of a crisis happening, and 2) Always provide the same style of leadership in a crisis or not.

Crisis come in all sizes and depth of issues. They are usually never expected or planned for. Some leaders can manage a crisis but a select few lead their organization effectively through them. Crisis can impact anyone in your athletic department. Are you and your staff prepared? Do you have a crisis management plan for staff, and do they understand and know how to implement it? Being prepared is vital for crises have no time table. They come and go at the time and place of their choosing.

As a young coach I dealt with a crisis that became national news story involving a late-night fight involving six members of my team and I dealt with the national media fallout from it. Given little guidance from my supervisors, I was left to deal with the crisis in the manner I thought best. We had no organized departmental plan. Thank goodness for having great friends who were skilled in handling a crisis. I learned some valuable lessons from this crisis. Initial information is usually wrong. Rumors spread five times as fast as the truth. Every action you take is watched and every word you say is scrutinized thoroughly. The mentoring and advice given to me by former administrators and friends allowed me to weather several months of negative reactions from on campus and off until the moment all players charged were completely exonerated for their part in the matter.

Later in my career as a coach and as an athletic director I faced several more unanticipated crises and through strategic crisis leadership I was able to effectively lead my team and staff through them. In one case I had a student-athlete playing on a MLB sanctioned summer team I was coaching who was nearly beaten to death while staying in summer housing at The Ohio State University. I spoke to news media almost every day for a month. I managed team fears and concerns, brought medical support to the team members and daily corrected erroneous stories in the media. In addition, I spent every day at the hospital with the young man and his family.

As an athletic director I dealt with a student athlete’s death, staff breaking NCAA rules, staff involvement in a national social media scandal, adultery, and many more crisis that impacted our organization and were across the spectrum in terms of seriousness. In all the cases I defined the crisis, predicted intended and unintended consequences of every action and decision, anticipated the impact of the crisis on all stakeholders and applied the values and guiding principles of the organization along with my own ethical standards to all decisions and strategies we undertook.

I had no formal training provided to handle these situations. Crisis leadership is not something coaches and athletic administrators get enough guidance in. In every case I was left with relying on my own personal values and ability to react in the heat of the moment. I watched colleagues step up in the heat of the moment and others wilt from the pressure. It is imperative you help your leaders prepare for these crisis moments, so they are not left unprepared. Gene Klann wrote in his book, Crisis Leadership, that there are three key themes of crisis leadership. These themes- communication, clarity of vision and values, and caring relationships are always important to leaders but certainly greater during times of crisis.

Leaders who are prepared to lead with these three tenets of crisis management are more prepared to contain the crisis, control the situation, ensure the organization suffers the least amount of damage and prevent, defuse and reduce the duration of these extremely difficult leadership situations. Our global society is more connected than ever before and events happening around the world can quickly impact your organization on a moment’s notice. No organization will go through their existence untarnished by a crisis. Get prepared because a crisis is just around the corner.

Crisis come in all forms and styles. Just some of the crisis situations that leaders in athletics may face include;

1. Catastrophic injury during competition

2. Fan or player behavior that interrupts play

3. Personal injury or even Death

4. Sexual Harassment, Racial Insensitivity, Unethical conduct

5. NCAA Violations

6. Lawsuits

7. Vehicle or travel accidents

8. Natural Disaster

9. Staff scandal/Defection

10. Social Media

Every athletic leader I know sleeps wearily at night thinking of all the things that can wrong in a moment’s notice. Leaders, no matter how prepared, cannot keep every crisis from happening, Through swift and thoughtful action, they can help keep them from reoccurring, reduce the duration of a crisis and help soften the negative impact of it by dealing with the human interests of a crisis before, during and after it occurs.

The seriousness of a crisis’ impact depends on the amount of impact the crisis will have on leadership, staff and stakeholders of the organization. Crisis can involve embarrassment to the organization and threat to the mission success. Leaders in athletics must be ready for all crisis, no matter the circumstances. True crisis leadership involves more than just saying the right thing at the right time to the right audience to help restore an institution’s reputation.

Crisis leadership can help your organization learn from any situation, remind your internal and external stakeholders of your core values, and move toward the future better served to lead through the inevitable changes and challenges you will face. Let us EMPower your staff with Crisis Leadership skills.


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