Students learn crisis leadership skills at Goizueta conference

By Layla Bellows | Emory Report | March 17, 2016

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When a company faces a crisis, the ability to navigate through the incident, stabilize and thrive on the other side frequently comes down to one thing: leadership.

Attendees at Goizueta Business School's 17th Undergraduate Business School Leadership Conference last month got an in-depth look into what it means to rise to the call of leading through crisis.

The event is hosted annually by the Goizueta BBA Council and this year drew student leaders from 23 top-tier business schools from points across the United States and as far as Spain, Mexico, Germany and the United Arab Emirates.

Goizueta Dean Erika James and Ken Keen, associate dean of Goizueta's leader development program and retired lieutenant general, led students through an interactive session coupling research and practice.

James, whose research examines crisis and organizational and leadership response, explained that crisis is tied to context. Events like a CFO leaving unexpectedly or a company not being able to make its payroll don't always equal crises.

"A real leader would have thought through these scenarios and have contingency plans in place to deal with them," she said.

But if the CFO left with the announcement that he or she was no longer willing to cook the books for the company or the organization announced that it wouldn't be making payroll because it lost its biggest client, the same scenarios would become crises that leaders must manage head on.

"A true crisis is something that impacts a company's financial well-being or business opportunities," she said.

According to James, crises are often ambiguous situations with low probability that take organizations by surprise and leave executives with little time to respond. Crises evoke initial psychological impacts such as disorientation, fear and despair, as well as behavioral reactions including paralysis, denial and defensiveness.

After leaders have time to process the event, psychological responses transform into anger, guilt and anxiety, and the resulting behaviors transform into responses such as damage control or finding ways to manage through impressions left by the situation.

"These mindsets diminish your ability to be a leader," James said. "Long-term, strategic planning goes out the window when dealing with stress. If we're not in a good emotional space around this, we're not going to be making good decisions."

Keen, popularly recognized for his deft leadership of the U.S. military-based response in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, provided insight into effective crisis response.

He happened to be in Haiti at the time to speak with the country's U.S. ambassador about the impending hurricane season. Instead, he found himself leading in the wake of one of the largest crises the country ever faced.

"We were at the ambassador's house and watched it shake like a palm tree in a storm," he said. Then they heard what sounded like explosions — it was multistory apartments and hotels crashing to the ground.

"We instantly knew it was one of the worst disasters in the country's history," he said. "We just didn't realize how significant it was."

Read the full story at Emory Business »