What a time it has been for self-inflicted harm. In state politics we’ve seen the fall of New York Governor Elliot Spitzer and the re-emergence of scandal involving former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. On Wall Street we’ve seen the implosion of Bear Stearns and Southwest Airlines was fined more than $10 million for flying more than three dozen jets that were out of compliance with airworthiness standards.
And we’ve seen two milestones in the U.S. war in Iraq: the passing of the fifth anniversary,
despite then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s assurance that “I can’t tell you if the use of in Iraq today would last five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last more than that;” and we’ve seen the four thousanth U.S. fatality in Iraq.
But we’ve also seen recoveries from crises. Senator Barack Obama, pummeled by criticism about his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, gave a defining speech on race in America and maintained his momentum in his quest for the Democratic nomination for president. New York’s new governor, David Patterson, pre-empted media scrutiny of his personal life by disclosing on his first day in office that he and his wife had prior affairs.
Whether in politics, corporate life, or not-for-profits, bad things happen to good organizations all the time. But whether the organization and its leaders emerge with their reputations intact is based not on the underlying crisis, but on the timeliness and quality of the response. Both timeliness and quality involve a human dimension: timeliness to take the pain, and quality to see the world the way one’s stakeholders do. Both require a character trait that is often absent: a dollop of humility.
Humility isn’t a word you see often in business. It is often interpreted as weakness, especially in competitive cultures like Wall Street, politics, and the top echelon of large organizations. But a dollop of humility tempers other attributes, and makes a leader even stronger. Humility helps a leader realize that maybe — just maybe — he or she might be wrong; that there may be other valid perspectives and that he or she doesn’t have to be the smartest person in every room, at every meeting.
Absent a dollop of humility, expect humiliation.
Public relations professionals are uniquely suited to help leaders understand the perspectives of stakeholders. In this way, they become a critical adviser for leaders, providing a needed defense against dynamic but tunnel-visioned leaders who persistently cause self-inflicted harm, both in the initial crises, and worse, in the response to those crises.
By Fred Garcia, frequent speaker and author on topics including crisis management, business ethics, corporate disclosure and journalist/source relationships. He is the executive director of Logos Institute for Crisis Management & Executive Leadership and author of “Crisis Communications” and is co-author of “Reputation Management: The Key to Successful Public Relations and Corporate Communication.” He was technical editor and editorial advisor for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Presentations (Alpha, 1997). His article “Effective Leadership Response to Crisis,” which appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Strategy & Leadership, won the Highly Commended Award at the Emerald Literati Network 2007 Awards for Excellence.
Join Garcia for his teleseminar, Crisis Management for a Down Economy: No Margin for Error.