Curing Leadership Lip Dislocation During a Crisis

It is called lip dislocation. Even the most talented leaders suffer from this problem, especially when the situation is emergent, urgent and victims are being created.

The interesting thing about this personal problem is that when you examine the lip dislocation of a variety of important people, a pattern emerges that is preventable.

Here’s a sample problem: Massey Energy chairman and CEO Don Blankenship said in The Wall Street Journal, “I’ve been here for 28 years and we know we have the best of safety programs and the best of safety procedures.” Then Blankenship (in whose Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia 29 miners perished on April 5, 2010) moved into the pattern so frequently seen when important people are in the heat and glare of public exposure: Their lip dislocation begins, caused by the failure to engage the brain before speaking. [ Editor’s note: For more on this, see Image Patrol in PRN 05/10/10 issue.] Here are the symptoms:

â–¶ Denial: Refuse to accept the fact that something bad has happened, and that there may be victims or other direct effects that require prompt public acknowledgement.

â–¶ Victim Confusion: Irritable reaction to reporters, angry neighbors and victims’ families when they call asking for help, information, explanation or apology. “Hey! We’re victims, too,” is the wrong response.

â–¶ Testosterosis: Hit back, rather than to deal with the problem. Refuse to give in and refuse to respect those who have a difference of opinion.

â–¶ Arrogance: The opposite of empathy. Reluctance to apologize, express concern or to take appropriate responsibility because, “If we do that, we’ll be liable,” or “We’ll look like sissies,” or “We’ll set a precedent.”

â–¶ Search for the Guilty: Shift blame anywhere you can while digging into the organization, looking for traitors, turncoats, troublemakers, or those who push back.

However, intentional communication (putting the brain in gear) can modify and mediate even the most devastating circumstances.

If rebuilding public and victim trust and confidence, and reducing the potential for continuous adverse media coverage, are the goals, intentional communication is the optimalstrategy:

1. Candor

• Truth with an attitude

• Disclose, announce early

• Explain reasoning and reasons, immediately

• Discuss options, alternatives being considered

2. Truthfulness

• Truth = 15% facts and data, 85% emotion and perspective

• Point of reference always matters more than facts

• Unconditional honesty, from the start

3. Apology

• Verbalized or written statement of personal regret, remorse and sorrow

• Acknowledge personal responsibility for having injured, insulted, failed or wronged another

• Humbly ask for forgiveness in exchange for making amends and more appropriate future behavior

4. Responsiveness

• Answer every question; avoid judging the questioner

• Every concern or question, regardless of the source, is legitimate and must be addressed

• Avoid taking any question personally

5. Empathy

• Actions that speak louder than words

• Actions illustrate concern, sensitivity and compassion

• Behave as though it was happening to you or someone you care about

• Let actions speak for themselves

6. Transparency

• Your behavior, your attitude, your plans, even your strategic discussions must be unimpeachable, positive and sensible

• Families should be comfortable reading about your actions, decisions, and discussions on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper or blog

• No secrets (gaffes and stupid stuff always come out)

7. Clarification and Correction

• Relentlessly correct and clarify the record

• Prompt, positive, constructive elaboration of the facts preempts critics, calms and empowers employees and supporters

Keep these steps in mind the next time your leader comes down with dreaded lip dislocation. PRN


Crisis manager James E. Lukaszewski heads The Lukaszewski Group. He can be reached at [email protected], and read his blog at [email protected].