A leadership crisis can happen in an instant, just like a flash mob. It can come in the dead of night after a controversial officer-involved incident, or it can mature over time, insidiously creeping through your organization like a noxious weed and then suddenly turning ugly in a very public spectacle. Whatever the root cause, leaders can expect scrutiny when things go wrong.
Are you ready? Have you thought through the possibilities? Do you know how you would respond if a dozen news trucks showed up in the parking lot? Do you have a trusted group of clear-thinking peers who are willing to give you candid, constructive and confidential input as you work through the challenge? If you answered “no” or “maybe not” to any of these questions, it’s time to get your ducks in a row, because a crisis will happen. It may not be tonight, it may not be in two years, but it will happen—and do-overs are virtually non-existent.
Case in point: In Fullerton, Calif., there has been a growing discord in the community regarding the death of a 37-year-old mentally ill man after an encounter with six Fullerton police officers. Kelly Thomas was contacted after a report of someone possibly breaking into cars. He’d had frequent encounters with law enforcement but no real history of aggressive behavior. Ironically, Thomas’ father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all spent time in law enforcement.
As the details came out, there was a curious lack of response from police leadership, leading to this editorial statement in the Los Angeles Times: “The public understandably has been calling for answers, and none have been forthcoming—not even a promise to provide answers in a timely way. The community has been treated as though its concerns don’t matter.”
Similar statements were made by other media outlets and politicians. Large groups of demonstrators descended on the police station. The names and addresses of the involved officers were released, leading to fears of retaliation. After weeks of calls for explanation and accountability, the chief went on medical leave, and a police captain was left in the crosshairs as acting chief.
As I write this, Thomas’ father has reportedly turned down a $900,000 settlement offer and filed a lawsuit, saying he won’t rest until all is known about what happened to his son. The FBI is involved, the Orange County District Attorney’s office is investigating and the city has hired an outsider who specializes in police oversight. The ACLU has engaged, and the hacker group Anonymous has said they will bring down city websites in retaliation.
What went wrong and what can we learn from this and similar events?
Incidents like this can happen anywhere and anytime. They can serve as a catalyst for a community reaction that can be as devastating as an out-of-control flash mob. Failing to respond quickly and decisively and failing to show that you’re in control will only result in problems, not the least of which is a loss of public confidence and trust. Waiting until you’re confronted with an incident to figure out how you will respond is unwise at best. Notice that I used the word respond and not react. A response involves more thought and planning than a reaction does. It’s not a coincidence that the word response forms the first half of the word responsibility.
Some people in positions of responsibility have engaged in what I call “coasting.” They’re nearing the end of their careers and, human nature being what it is, feel they can simply coast until the time comes to leave. News flash: Those who are prone to coast often find themselves headed downhill.
So here are the takeaways for this month:
1. Things will go wrong.
2. When they do, the public expects us to take responsibility for fixing the problem. They want to hear that the people who are responsible are fully engaged.
3. Have a plan and respond. As the situation unfolds, adapt as necessary. Provide assurance that the right things will be done. You don’t have to pass judgment or make an immediate determination as to what happened—that takes time. You must, however, show sincere concern and a willingness to both listen and provide information when available.
4. Seek input from those who will give you honest feedback. They have the advantage of being outside the fishbowl and can provide suggestions on needed course corrections.
Bottom line: A bus will come. You can get on, get out of the way or get thrown under—it’s your choice. —Dale Stockton, Editor in chief
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