Trusteeship Magazine: Five Precepts For Showing Leadership In a Time of Crisis

No blueprint or set of procedures can substitute for good judgment and lessons learned from concrete experience. p. The terrorist attacks of September 11 are unsurpassed for the horror they inflicted on Americans of all walks. Many college and university presidents have movingly described what subsequently took place on their campuses. Seemingly, each institution operated out of its own sense of tradition and responsibility for the common good. As a religiously affiliated institution, we at Notre Dame instinctively turned to rituals of prayer and symbolization.

Years ago, I had a conversation with John Lombardi, then president of the University of Florida, about how he and his team handled the aftermath of multiple murders of young women in neighborhoods surrounding the university. Unsubstantiated rumors and a sense that things were out of control worked against effective management of a difficult situation. He insisted on the need for a unified voice and effective communication with numerous constituencies. So when we at Notre Dame went through the trauma of a bus accident that killed two and injured 18 members of our women’s swim team, I drew upon the conversation with Lombardi in mulling how I would respond.

Recently, I was part of a panel discussion during which the presidents of Texas A&M, Seton Hall, and Indiana University described how their institutions dealt with the three crises, all of which made national headlinesthe collapse of a log pile teeming with students preparing a bonfire, a fire in a student dormitory, and the dismissal of a popular but controversial basketball coach. As part of the discussion, we analyzed the president’s responsibilities in overseeing the decision making and in coordinating the efforts of many different institutional components.

The range of things that can go wrong in our institutions is as extensive as the human condition and nature’s vagaries. Some schools have had to recover from tornados, floods, hurricanes, and other “acts of God.” Then there are always demonstrations for one cause or another, instances of misappropriation of funds, scandals involving sex or personal peccadilloes, and bad blood and acrimony across major academic units. In all such cases, presidential leadership is necessary, but no blueprint or set of procedures can substitute for good judgment and lessons learned from concrete experience.

One of the participants on the panel asked whether every institution represented had a prepared disaster plan. Some of the presidents replied that they did; others werent sure; and still others were not yet convinced of the importance of a formal plan.

For myself, I have had greater confidence in straightforward conversations with peers who have exercised a responsibility similar to my own as well as in reading case studies of related historical events. Heres what I have learned about dealing with crises:

1. Accurate information is essential to making informed and proper decisions. It is better to postpone action until a clear picture emerges than to set processes in motion that will later force backtracking. This is especially true in cases of human misbehavior.

2. Presidential leadership is crucial in calling the right combination of actors together to mobilize a collective effort. But it does not necessarily follow that the president must be the institution’s spokesperson. This often is best left to the director of public information.

3. Communication with all appropriate constituencies is vital to engage support for the institutions actions and to allay fears based on misinformation. It is often parents of students on residential campuses who worry most for the well-being of their daughters or sons.

4. Those with special levels of responsibility, such as the board chair, other officers, and individuals who have direct responsibility for those who might be affected, should be kept fully informed as early and reliably as possible.

5. When everything seems to be most chaotic, try to maintain a sense of humor. One thing an adult life teaches is that individuals can recover from even the worst kinds of calamities. Our campus communities are far more resilient than we sometimes give them credit for. Read about the history of your institution, and you may be reminded that things appeared to be just as bleak a decade or a century ago. If we as presidents maintain our sense of poise and perspective, we can provide a good model for the campus community.

In the end, composure and self-assurance in times of crisis are essential to good leadership. Our job is not to carry the burden in solitary splendor but to engage effectively the talent, goodwill, and energy of the institution as a whole. If we can come close to approaching this goal, we will experience anew the privilege of being called to serve the common good.


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